Generation End Game for tobacco: Being on the right side of history?


IN LIGHT of the Cabinet’s decision to ban cigarette smoking and other electronic and non-electronic smoking products for Malaysians born after 2005, there has been a chorus of support by those in the medical community urging MPs to support the new Tobacco Bill, which according to the Minister of Health Khairy Jamaluddin will be tabled in this current parliamentary sitting.

While the medical community is right in urging the government to take a more drastic action in combating the cigarette smoking habit, which as we all know is harmful to health, the move to legislate a harmful habit serve as a clear example of policy failure — of which having prohibitionist measures at the forefront whilst ignoring the realities on the ground.

This in spite of the billions of ringgit being spent on anti-smoking campaigns over the past few decades and other policies aimed at combating the habit, including enforcing controls on advertising and putting warning labels on tobacco products. 

The number of cigarette smokers remain stubborn at about 20% of the adult population in Malaysia and it has hovered at around that for the past decade.

Will the government be successful in bringing down this number with this latest legislation? 

Time will tell, and if the bill is passed, the government should take all the credit for its success, but it must also be reminded that the government should also be held accountable of any of its shortcomings. 

If passed, Malaysia will be the first country to successfully legislate the GEG (Generational End Game) (policy) in the world and there is no track record of similar success elsewhere to bench-mark ourselves to. 

The government has also made clear that cigarette smoking is as bad as other smokeless alternatives such as vaping.

However, the painful truth is that bad habits are difficult to combat. It is intrinsic human nature that the more you ban a habit or a substance, people will just find ways to get access to the banned product, including circumventing policies, what more when the supply is readily available still in the market and available to the wider public. 

Moreover, by introducing this hard-line ban, the government is indeed ignoring that the fact that the smoking habit is essentially an addiction problem. 

Could this new policy be a gateway to launch youths into other, worse habits like alcohol drinking and drug-abuse, which is still a rampant problem?  

This is to speak little of whether it takes away one’s human right to have access to a habit. The slippery slope argument — where the government start banning things, where will (it) stop — is indeed disturbing. 

Today it’s cigarettes and vape, tomorrow it will be alcohol, online gaming — who knows the week after the government will ban unmarried couples from dating to prevent premarital sex.

At the same time, it looks like the government has come around to its senses that cannabis-products are OK to be used for medical purposes.

This paternalistic trend of the government is indeed nothing new, and the government knows best mantra still underpins most of our policies despite the lip-service to a whole of nation approach. 

The advocates of the new Tobacco Bill has gone as far as to wedge a rhetorical divide of shaming those who do not share their view as being on the wrong side of history. 

The over-simplistic binary offered —of whether you are with us or against us — may indeed be counterproductive when a national consensus and healthy dialogue are needed to tackle such dark and complex legacy of smoking.  

Joseph Voon