Many of us who are in tobacco control groups in Malaysia have been holding our breaths in anticipation this past week following the deputy health minister’s announcement that the ministry would push towards gazetting more areas as non-smoking zones, especially open-air restaurants.
Why are we not having a full-blown celebration, one might ask? After all, increasing non-smoking areas is something that tobacco control groups have been recommending that the government carry out for years.
This is because if you read between the lines, it seems that the health ministry may be worried about the backlash from implementing this move. Over the past few days, we have seen some quarters criticising it, including members of the mainstream media. One such member tweeted: “Banning smoking at open-air eateries is such a fascist move. If people want smoke-free environments, eat inside. Otherwise, where can smokers go? Open spaces belong to smokers, too.”
There are four main arguments making the rounds on mainstream and social media on why open-air restaurants should not be designated as non-smoking zones. I will point them out and illustrate why they do not hold any water.
The first argument is the one made above, which is about how smokers should also have the right to smoke, and that we are depriving them of this right. The fact the people continue to use the “right of smokers” argument shows our lack of success in “de-normalising” smoking among Malaysians. We continue to “romanticise” it, associating it with “freedom” – indeed, one of the arguments often touted is how “smokers also have the right to smoke”.
What many people fail to realise is that smoking is an individual right. No one argues this point. No one has called for an open ban on tobacco. Feel free to read and understand the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the global master plan for tobacco control efforts.
It is important to note that gazetting an open-air restaurant as a non-smoking area doesn’t mean that an individual is being deprived of his or her right to smoke. It just means that they are being regulated on where they can and cannot smoke. This is an important distinction. A similar train of thought occupies laws on public nudity, for example, regulating where you can and cannot appear without clothes. Whether you choose to comply, of course, is your own choice.
More importantly, consider also the rights of the nearly 80% of Malaysians who do not smoke. They have the right not to be exposed to tobacco smoke. They have the right not to get an increased risk of having cancer and all other related diseases that are caused by tobacco exposure and through no fault of their own. In my mind, and I am sure to most of us in our right minds, the right to health of all Malaysians is the most important right. Consider these numbers: 209,000 people voted to make open-air eateries non-smoking zones versus 19,000 who voted against it in a recent online poll by the health ministry.
The second main argument made by those who oppose gazetting open-air restaurants as non-smoking areas is that smoking is something that the government has no business regulating. If you’re going to regulate smoking, the argument goes, you should also regulate junk food, fast food, and a whole lot of other issues that are detrimental to health. People should be allowed to make their own choices, and if that choice is a bad one, well too bad for them.
While there may be a grain of truth to this line of argument, there is a far bigger point to be made which negates this entire train of thought. Consuming fast food, junk food and many other poor health choices made by Malaysians are individual ones. They affect you and you alone. Becoming obese from the overconsumption of calories is something done by an individual which affects only the individual. No one ties you to a chair and tortures you by feeding you fast food until you pop.
Smoking, on the other hand, doesn’t just affect a single person. It affects anyone and everyone exposed. Data shows that second-hand smoke causes close to 900,000 deaths a year globally – this is without even considering the impact of third-hand smoke. This is extremely unfair to those affected because it is not a choice they make. They fall ill and die through no fault of their own! So, similar to regulations to prevent car accidents on the road, regulations on smoking are about protecting non-smokers from exposure to something that they have no control over. If a government has no business introducing regulations for the safety of its people, why do we even have one?
The third most used argument against regulations on stopping smoking in open-air restaurants is: why don’t you just tell the person next to you to stop smoking? Or, restaurants should enforce their own no-smoking policy instead of the government doing so. More than one person has come up to me and said, “If you don’t like someone smoking next to you in a public place, tell the person to stop.” Well, easier said than done, especially when you are only offering this as an empty excuse. I have tried, and continue to try almost every day. However, I have been shouted at and threatened with physical abuse. On two occasions, friends and family members sitting with me were threatened as well. The truth is, without a legal framework that de-normalises smoking in open-air spaces, there is little that social enforcement can achieve.
The final argument used against gazetting open-air spaces as non-smoking areas is, “If you don’t like it, don’t sit there. Go sit in air-conditioned restaurants where people cannot smoke.”
Unfortunately, this is an elitist view. For those who are can afford to be able to eat in air-conditioned, smoke-free restaurants all the time, I am happy that you are well off enough to make that choice. I consider myself a working-class Malaysian. Most days, I eat two meals at a non-air-conditioned, open-air restaurant – in other words, at mamaks. That is what I can afford. This holds true for many Malaysians as well. Does the average Malaysian at the mamak not have a right to health? Or is it only the “privileged” members of society sitting in air-conditioned eateries who have a right to health by non-exposure to smoking?
Dr Murallitharan M is a public health physician and director of the National Cancer Society of Malaysia.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.