Just a little under a week ago, the Dewan Rakyat passed the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health 2023 Bill.
The bill, which still needs to be approved by the Dewan Negara and subsequently the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, consists of two large sections, the first regulating the use and sale of conventional tobacco products i.e. cigarettes; and the second regulating the use and sale of new tobacco products i.e. vaping products and e-cigarettes.
Notably, this version of the bill has dropped the Generational End Game or GEG component, where it was proposed that individuals born after a certain year would not be able to ever buy or use any kind of tobacco products, be it conventional cigarettes, vaping devices or e-cigarettes.
Some surmise that the dropping of this section was what got the bill across the line in terms of being passed, as the GEG components had come under heavy fire from many quarters including the tobacco and vaping industry and human rights proponents to list a few.
The passing of the bill was an emotional moment for many people for different reasons. For some tobacco control advocates, the act of finally getting a specific tobacco control act approved through parliament was something they had been waiting for, for many decades.
For most tobacco control advocates however, this was a bittersweet moment, because getting this bill passed was something momentous.
However, without the GEG portion of the Act, many feel that there is no strong roadmap for this public health problem in the future. With a strong GEG framework in place, there would have been a clear mechanism in which to reduce the impact of these harmful products on the Malaysian population.
It’s perhaps important to state here that Malaysians continue to suffer and die from innumerable diseases driven by both nicotine and the delivery devices be they conventional cigarettes, vaping devices or e-cigarettes. And these numbers don’t look like they are going to be easily reduced with current strategies – which is what the bill contains at present.
Interestingly, the passing of the bill has also caused mixed feelings among those in the tobacco and vaping industry. Some industry players have voiced their unhappiness, saying that the bill is too restrictive in nature. Many others, however, have expressed relief and happiness openly that with the bill passed, they have a clear set of rules on how to operate their businesses (keeping in mind that previously, e-cigarettes existed in a realm of uncertainty with dubious status about their legality).
Of course, the industry as a whole is breathing a sigh of relief that the GEG portions of the Act were not passed, as this would have outlined a clear exit strategy for their entire industry. Under the GEG, they would have started losing “new” customers on an annual basis, with existing users not being alive to continue using these products after about a couple of decades or so.
Instead, while strict controls will exist to ensure that under-18s are not able to buy or use conventional cigarettes, vaping devices or e-cigarettes, there will be nothing that stops individuals over 18 currently (or when they turn 18 subsequently) from becoming users. Hence the difficult task of ever getting this problem resolved in terms of curtailing its use.
The road ahead, though it may seem rocky, remains a clear one for tobacco control and disease prevention nevertheless. Despite the government and MPs electing to pass a bill that is not entirely to the liking of civil society and tobacco control advocates, a law has been passed: one which provides clarity in terms of regulating and controlling these products.
The job for tobacco control advocates and the public is clear: do our best to keep these products away from young people and to prevent them from ever becoming users. In order for this to happen, strong and clear strategies on education, health promotion, smoking cessation and treatment of nicotine users must happen. Most importantly, these measures must be supported strongly by the government via comprehensive sustainable allocations of funding and other resources.
But it is unclear whether the whole-of-government is on board to support such initiatives to keep its public healthy, especially when it comes to tobacco products. As we have seen over the course of events to table and approve the Tobacco Control Bill, the health ministry seems to be standing alone without any support. Worse, opponents of public health causes specifically from the tobacco and vaping industry seem to have full sway over how provisions within this law was shaped. Can we expect any better moving forwards?
Health minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa has literally had to slug her way through a hostile Cabinet with little support while she championed the movement of this bill forward. People behind the scenes are aware of how much resistance there is against the minister of health and the ministry of health for the sole reason of getting this bill thrown out.
Kudos to her and the ministry for persevering and actually getting a tobacco control bill approved. It’s a task that has taken more than two decades and multiple governments to actually get done. Sure, it is not the law that we would have liked to have, but it’s the law we actually got. Now, it’s time to get cracking to make sure that the law and all its public health control measures are actually enforced.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.