The sincerity of the Government in advocating the negation of smoking in Malaysia

woman-smokerThe Consumers Association of Penang lauds the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) adoption of the WHO’s (World Health Organisation) motto of “Protect women from tobacco marketing and smoke” for World No Tobacco Day on 31 May 2010 as the impetus for its focus on women being the main target for tobacco industry marketing in Malaysia.

In a recent media report, Malaysian Thoracic Society President Prof Roslina Manap stated that more women throughout the world are becoming smokers as tobacco companies continue to target them through advertisements and that in Malaysia, it is estimated that 50% of the male population smoke while women smokers comprise about 20% off the world’s more than one billion smokers.

Apparently the tobacco industry here has also been successful in targeting our younger female generations. According to Deputy Health Minister Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin, the percentage of teenage girls who smoke, which is higher than of teenage boys, is worrying, especially when there are girls who started smoking even before reaching the age of 10.

She said the 2nd National Health Morbidity and Mortality Survey (NHMS11) conducted in 2003 found that 28.8 per cent of teenage girls smoked, more than double the figure for boys, which was 14.1 per cent.

“This trend is very worrying as it clearly showed that there was a serious increase in the number of female smokers who started at a very young age,” she added.

With young women, the industry simply has more room to expand. While the epidemic of tobacco use among men is in slow decline in some countries, use among women in some countries is increasing.

Of the over five million people who die each year from tobacco use, approximately 1.5 million are women. Unless urgent action is taken by Governments of the world, tobacco use could kill more than eight million people by 2030, of whom 2.5 million would be women. Approximately three-quarters of these female deaths would occur in the low-income and mainly middle-income countries like Malaysia that are least able to absorb such losses. Every one of these premature deaths would have been avoidable.

World No Tobacco Day 2010 focused on the harm which tobacco marketing and smoke do to women. Women, and men, must be protected from tobacco industry marketing and smoke, as stated in the preamble to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which Malaysia is signatory to. In effect since 2005, this international treaty acknowledges “the increase in smoking and other forms of tobacco consumption by women and young girls worldwide” and explicitly recognizes “the need for gender-specific tobacco control strategies”.

Unfortunately, less than 9% of the world’s population is covered by comprehensive advertising bans. Only 5.4% is covered by comprehensive national smoke-free laws. Malaysia is one country where such laws are poorly enacted and enforced. In fact, even crucial laws pertaining to tobacco control are subject to the indecisive flip-flop attitude of the Government.

The Health Minister, Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said last year that the there would be no more hiccups in the ban of 14 stick cigarette packs and that on 1 June 2010 after 5 long years of delay the 14 stick packs would be phased out. In late May this year, the Government suddenly decided to defer its ban on the 14 stick cigarette packets to 1 January next year. The Government had violated its own regulations! We see no reason for this about-turn except for the possibility that lobbying by some tobacco companies had made an impact on the Government’s ability to honour its word.

Only recently after outcry from the public and civil society against the Governments failure, the ban was finally imposed after another turnaround by the Minister on June the 1st. Sadly, this was only after a tobacco company threatened to consider legal action against the MOH over possible losses that it had to suffer from stopping its production of the medium-sized packs as a result of the sudden policy deferment.

The Health Minister while enforcing the ban also said that a study on the sale of illicit cigarettes would be carried out by the ministry. The problem of widely available cheap, illicit cigarettes with no graphic warnings or tar and nicotine levels sold openly for as low as RM1.80 was highlighted by CAP last year. It is common knowledge that these cheap cigarettes continue to be sold openly even to young girls. We are unable to understand why there is any need for a study when the only thing that is lacking now is the political will to effectively enforce the law against the smuggling and sale of these cigarettes.

This pathetic state of affairs only demonstrates that in the case of the 14 pack cigarette misrule, the Government is only interested in playing to the gallery, in this instance the tobacco industry and not genuine in its efforts to eradicate smoking and to safeguard the health of all Malaysians, as is its primary duty and responsibility to the rakyat through the Ministry of Health.

With the inconsistent manner with which the Government carries out its policy implementation, we question its sincerity and seriousness in abiding by WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and acknowledging “the increase in smoking and other forms of tobacco consumption by women and young girls worldwide” and by explicitly recognising “the need for gender-specific tobacco control strategies” in Malaysia. Is the Government truly sincere in its aspiration to quell the rising number of young female smokers with the many available means at its disposal or will it once again bow down to pressure by industry?

With the advent of Afta (Asean Free Trade Area) this year, Malaysia will have to reduce duties on tobacco imports. Tobacco farming is expected to decline and the government has in recent years put in place programmes to wean farmers away from tobacco and into alternative commercial crops.  What then will the local tobacco industry resort to? Will they once again arm-twist the government into going against its own agricultural policy of redirecting our farmers away from tobacco or worse, will the Government concede to the strong-arm tactics of the tobacco industry?

We call upon the Malaysian Government which signed the FCTC in 2003 and acceded to and ratified it in 2005, to abide by the spirit of the treaty which reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health above all else. As Party to the Convention and guardian of the rakyat’s health, the Government must prove to the rakyat its sincerity and give genuine assurance in guaranteeing solid and unwavering policy and legislative formulation, implementation and enforcement in conformance to the Convention in its entirety and without ambiguity.

Letter to the Editor, 18 June 2010