Commentary: Malaysia’s new tobacco control bill a bold step towards protecting youth
If Malaysia passes its proposed tobacco control bill, those born in 2007 will not be able to purchase tobacco and vape products. Two observers say this could speed up what has been a slow decline in smoking prevalence.
SYDNEY: Malaysia’s proposed Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill 2022, an omnibus law on tobacco control, aims to phase out cigarette smoking and vape products by prohibiting their use and sale to everyone born from 2007 onwards.
The bill, along with its “generational end game” measure, has received praise for being visionary. But some say that it will infringe on personal liberties and criminalise minors.
Malaysia’s concerted efforts in tobacco control began in the 1990s with the Control of Tobacco Products Regulations, which have been strengthened through several amendments. These measures include establishing smoke-free public spaces, requiring pictorial health warnings on cigarette packets and a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
Despite more than two decades of effort, the decline in smoking prevalence has been slow, from 29.5 per cent in 2000 to 21.3 per cent in 2019. Male smoking prevalence has remained persistently high, with only a slight decline from 49.5 per cent in 2003 to 40.5 per cent in 2019. The rate of adolescents who smoke is about 13.8 per cent.
Interference from the tobacco industry has undermined government efforts to control tobacco and implement the tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship ban — opposing plain packaging and thwarting government efforts to raise taxes. Malaysia has consequently fared poorly in rankings of Asian countries that face high levels of industry interference.
GENERATIONAL END GAME MEASURE
With more than 28,600 smoking-related deaths in Malaysia annually, tobacco control needs a boost and a long-term solution.
This new standalone bill, along with the generational end game measure, is a forward-looking proposal by the Ministry of Health to enhance tobacco control and prevent tobacco addiction in the next generation.
Since former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s announcement of the bill in January, both proponents and opponents have released a flurry of media statements, opinion polls, reports and letters.
The divide is clear between the pro-public health community supporting the bill and the pro-vaping industry opposing it. Experts and concerned individuals, both local and international, have emerged to persuade the public and lobby legislators.
The bill’s proposed ban on the sale of vapes has been contentious, even though the pro-vape side claims to be against youth use. Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore and Thailand have already banned vape and heated tobacco products. The Malaysian Health Ministry has been mulling a ban on these products since 2015 but faced opposition from the industry and pro-vaping groups.
VAPING PROBLEM AMONG SCHOOL CHILDREN
Just as tobacco companies have targeted young people to boost cigarette sales for decades, youth remain the main target for new tobacco products through influencers on social media such as Instagram and TikTok.
In Malaysia, vaping among school children is already a problem, with more girls starting to vape. Currently, about 10 per cent of adolescents — 17 per cent of teenage boys and 3 per cent of teenage girls — vape. These numbers will increase in coming years with easy online access to these products.
Countries that allow vape products but ban their sales to minors have not fared well in preventing youth use. In the United Kingdom, vaping among adolescents has increased among 15-year-old girls from 10 per cent in 2018 to 21 per cent in 2021, while in New Zealand 27 per cent of young people vape.
Pro-vaping groups have ignored this and even called on Malaysian policymakers to mirror New Zealand’s end game by removing the ban on vapes from the bill.
Some argue that the generational end game measure in the bill will criminalise children. But end game strategies are consistent with World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Article 16, which calls for a ban on sales to and by minors.
This clause is also consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Malaysia is a party to and thereby obligated to protect children from harm.
In 2025, those born in 2007 will turn 18 years old, and under the proposed bill will not be able to purchase tobacco and vape products.
ATTACK ON PERSONAL LIBERTY?
The United States-based lobby group Consumer Choice Center — which has received funds from British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Japan Tobacco International — has opposed Malaysia’s generational end game measure, claiming it attacks personal liberty.
But governments have set aside personal liberties in other instances to protect citizens, such as the compulsory use of safety belts and crash helmets, as well as banning leaded fuel and plastic bags, because they harm people’s health and the environment.
Places that have achieved low smoking prevalence have implemented stringent tobacco control measures. Australia, for example, introduced the plain packaging of tobacco products. Despite being challenged by the tobacco industry in courts and the World Trade Organization, they won the right to protect public health with this innovative measure.
Australia also significantly reduced the duty-free allowance for tobacco. Similarly, Hong Kong has no duty-free status for tobacco products and has banned vape and heated tobacco products. Singapore raised the legal age to purchase cigarettes to 21 years.
Malaysia’s proposed bill is a bold step towards protecting its youth and will catapult tobacco control towards speedier declines in tobacco use.
Mary Assunta is a Senior Policy Advisor and Yen Lian Tan is Knowledge and Information Manager at the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum.