The health minister’s decision to exclude nicotine from being a controlled substance under the Poisons Act has had the unfortunate effect of allowing even children to use nicotine-laced vape.
The ministry says this was done as part of the government’s efforts to make nicotine-containing vape taxable, a measure introduced in Budget 2023.
The truth is that vape could have been legalised, made available and taxed under the previously proposed Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill 2022, with all the necessary controls in place, including prohibitions for those under 18 from using vape products.
These actions could then have been carried out in a sequential manner. First, by tabling and approving the Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill. Second, by removing nicotine from the Poisons Act, and then by imposing an excise tax on nicotine.
The present problem has arisen because the government did not table the Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill.
Instead, it chose to first announce an excise tax on nicotine during the Budget. That has allowed nicotine to be sold freely without legal controls since April 1.
The calamitous result: vape containing nicotine is now legally available for anyone and everyone to use, including children.
Other equally worrying concerns include that vape containing any amount of nicotine content can now be sold and used by users of all ages with disastrous health consequences, which the media will surely report in days ahead.
What is especially disappointing throughout this entire episode has been the ministry’s refusal to listen to pleas from medical and health professionals.
For example, the Poisons Board, an independent body of professionals, unanimously rejected the move to exclude nicotine from the Poisons List. Regrettably, its input and recommendations were ignored.
Up to 70 civil society and medical professional organisations consisting of thousands of members had also called on the ministry to review its move, highlighting the public health consequences that would result from it. These calls also received little attention.
Some argue that since vaping has been around without any controls since 2016, this move changes nothing; and in fact the government will now be able to derive some revenue from the sale of vape.
That is no different from saying that since murders happen in Malaysia anyway, we should just impose a fine on murderers so that the country can at least get some income from it. Going down this road will have catastrophic consequences.
Even more distressing and disappointing to health advocates is that the credibility and reputation of the health ministry, the custodian of the health of Malaysians, has been rendered vulnerable.
Thousands of health professionals under its aegis tirelessly care for the health of Malaysians daily, working hard every day to prevent illness.
Through this move, the ministry seems to be signalling that health is nowhere near as important as money.
That is the message now reverberating among our already overworked and underpaid colleagues, who will suffer further demotivation and start questioning the raison dêtre for their continued service.
The ministry alleges that everything will be made alright when the Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill is tabled by its new May deadline.
In the first place, this misstep should not have even occurred. Second, it must not be forgotten that attempts to table and pass a Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill have been ongoing for the past three decades, so health advocates will likely be cynical about it happening this time.
The correct and immediate move would be to delay the implementation of this decision.
Implement the tax on vape and allow the removal of nicotine from the Poisons list only after the Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill has been tabled by the government and approved by Parliament.
There will then be adequate protection for our children (and even adults) from harm to their health.
We, health advocates, have lost trust that our government is doing right by us in terms of health.
From our vantage point, it just looks as though the health of Malaysians is being sold down the river for money.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.