Malaysia needs to implement plain cigarette packaging before year end

Since December 2012, Australia became the first country in the world since the last quarter of 2012 to require all tobacco products to be sold in plain packages without any form of branding such as colours, images, corporate logos and trademarks. Though it was first proposed in New Zealand in 1989 and later in several countries, there was a serious hesitation towards plain cigarette packaging till Australia took the first step. This hesitation was due to the enormous challenges and open threats tobacco companies made to governments.

The Australian government was not spared. Tobacco companies threatened to drop prices. They have also dragged the government into law suits. However Australian government gave higher priority to public health considerations and has stood up to all the challenges from tobacco industry, which has all failed one after another. While critics initially thought the challenges from tobacco industry will give Australian government a bloody nose, the reality has been the other way.

This success has encouraged governments in Turkey, India, New Zealand, United Kingdom, European Union, Canada, Norway and France to work towards plain cigarette packaging. Countries such as New Zealand are likely to implement it before the end of the year.

Malaysia needs to be the next country implementing plain packaging before year end. Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Health must implement plain packaging before year end and urgently work on it. This is an important election promise as it will determine how many lives they will save and how many years of illness they will reduce for smokers for a country where half the men smoke.

Cigarette packaging has been proven to influence young people to pick up smoking. In a country like Malaysia where 50 teenagers below age of 18 pick up smoking each day, this new policy will slow down the pickup of smoking. Smokers have also shared that plain cigarette packing deters them from smoking. Since Malaysia has one of the highest prevalence of smokers in the world, there is a need for strong policies to drastically reduce smoking prevalence rates.

Till today Malaysian Ministry of Health has no confidence that its policies can achieve that over next two decades, making one sit up and ask what the very use of current national smoking policies is if they cannot produce results. Plain cigarette packing is not a magical solution but a strong solution which is what Malaysia needs urgently.

Letter to the Editor, 11 March 2013