Call for true enforcement to reduce smoking

Smoking is bad for health, pure and simple. And yet measures taken to address the smoking pandemic in Malaysia seems conflicted – on one hand is the cost in human and health terms, while on the other side stifling government efforts are the apparent negative effect on tobacco farmers and poverty alleviation. The latter argument is flawed.

The smoking statistics in Malaysia is quite alarming; over 50% of adult males are smokers and some 50 children under age 18 take up smoking every day.  Approximately 10,000 Malaysians die every year from smoking-related ailments, making it one of the top killers in the country. WHO estimates that tobacco would have killed a billion people in the world by end of the 21st century. Then there is the treatment cost to families, reduced economic productivity and increase costs of public health care.

In Malaysia, tobacco growing is touted to help the farmers make a living and reduce poverty.  The World Bank, a global financing agency that once provided capital for tobacco production in developing countries, has stopped this action in recognition of the health costs and now supports the growing of alternative crops.

Repeated claims that tobacco cultivation reduces poverty seem exaggerated, albeit false, when we see instances of the Malaysian government often coming to rescue and offer subsidies to the tobacco farmers to maintain their economic viability in the wake of natural disasters and other challenges. Take the example of the early 2009 floods which devastated the East Coast tobacco crops, requiring the government and tobacco companies to extend special assistance in the form of further subsidies to the growers.

Section 16(1) of the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004 clearly states, “The manufacturer shall pack the cigarettes in a packet containing not less than twenty sticks of cigarettes”.  It is however sad that the so-called support for ‘struggling tobacco farmers’ outweighed health considerations, as seen in the Cabinet’s decision in 2005 not to immediately halt 14-stick packets of cigarettes as recommended by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), but to phase these out over a five-year period.

Malaysia supposedly embraces WHO’s FCTC which mandates some kind of tobacco control policy.  However the government is conflicted in its policy measures and implementation since it has bought lots of shares in public-listed tobacco multinational corporations, such as British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International Malaysia, and encourages tobacco cultivation, with the reasoning these are needed for poverty alleviation. The Government purchased these shares at the KLSE through government-controlled investment bodies, including the national pension fund, government investment corporations and state-controlled unit trusts.

We therefore do welcome Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai’s recent statement that the government will fine those caught smoking or possessing illicit or illegal cigarettes in a bid to reduce demand for such cigarettes, leading to a halt of such smuggling and trading activities.

Illegal and contraband bands may cost as low as RM2 per 20 sticks pack, while duty-free cigarettes are smuggled by syndicates and sold illegally by errant retailers all over the country for between RM3.50 and RM4 for a pack of 20s. The rogue retailers not only sell smuggled cigarettes but violate the government’s mandated RM7 minimum cigarette price (MCP).

Malaysians reportedly smoke a “staggering nine billion sticks of illicit cigarettes each year” – approximately 4 out of 10 cigarettes smoked in the country are illegal, costing the Government up to RM 2 billion in lost revenue from taxes.

Measures for the Government:

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) urges the government to take a serious view of the smoking scourge that threatens individual citizens and the healthy fabric of society. Concrete steps must be cemented in the Malaysian policy and rightly implemented to fight the growing problem of tobacco use:

1) Reduce demand

a. Make the minimum cigarette price mandated for cigarettes steep to get users to quit tis expensive habit. The retailing price of premium brand cigarettes should be fixed at a high rate for a pack of 20s, higher than the current price of about RM10 per pack. The price of premium brand cigarettes in United Kingdom is RM36.60, Ireland RM37.98, Singapore RM27.80, New Zealand RM27.20, Japan RM 10.60, Sri Lanka RM10.90.

b. Enforce the ban on the sale of loose cigarettes to ensure retailers do not sell these.

c. Hike up the excise duties on tobacco products and beef up enforcement to prevent  smuggling of illegal, contraband or duty-free cigarettes. This helps to keep cigarettes out of the reach of a larger population.

d. Remove the duty-free status for cigarettes and tobacco products sold at airports and duty-free shops.

e. Stop sale of cigarettes on board Malaysian planes.

f. Ban display of cigarettes at payment counters of retail outlets and other prominent places. Instead, these products should be kept away from public view, for instance under the payment counters, and only brought out for sale on the specific request of a customer.

 2) Protection against passive smoking – Extend the ban on smoking to cover all public places including restaurants, bars, parks and recreation areas.

3) Introduce a licensing system that limits the number and location of outlets allowed to sell tobacco products.  The license should be subjected to yearly renewal.

4) Step up the phasing-out of tobacco cultivation, and eventually make it illegal to grow tobacco.

5) Improve government funding for education, anti-smoking campaigns, and measures to help users to kick the smoking habit.

6) Prohibit linking of education, sports activities, scholarship to tobacco companies and products.

 7) Strong political will and execution of regulatory policies to curb the smoking scourge in the country. The government should stop using poverty alleviation and protection of the farmers as an excuse for failing to take stern action against the production and promotion of tobacco.

8) Ban publicity for tobacco products in any form. Leaders of the country should set by example and by advocacy to bring about a decline in smokers, and associated ailments.

 9) Stop any subtle form of government support for tobacco products – State and federal government leaders must stop endorsing tobacco multinational corporations as good corporate citizens, thus giving them the opportunity to reduce the impact of tobacco policies.

10) Media support to encourage quitting – The media should increase coverage on the negative effects of tobacco to raise community awareness on the harm of smoking and encourage quitting.

Tobacco is a major preventable cause of diseases, the loss of precious man-hours and premature deaths among the people of Malaysia. We call on the government not to be conflicted any longer but to put the interest of the people above industry interests.

Letter to Editor, 3 May 2011