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Clearing the air on the tobacco generational endgame Bill

In 2012, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation released an anti-smoking advertisement that went viral due to the stars of the advertisement: children.

In the video clip, children would approach adults smoking in public to ask them for a light.

Invariably, each adult would refuse and explain to the child why they should not smoke.

One smoker went as far as to say: “if you smoke, you die faster. Don’t you want to live and play?”

The advertisement highlights a fact known to many: Smokers may be victims of their addiction, but they do not want their children – or any child – to make the same mistakes they made.

In fact, nearly 70% of smokers want to quit, but are unable to do so as a consequence of their dependence on nicotine, one of the most addictive substances known to us.

The argument in favour of cigarettes have predominantly been financial – as if any amount of money can compensate for a product that kills half of its users and causes untold suffering to not only users, but also innocent secondary smokers (it is worth noting that of the eight million people who die from smoking annually, more than a million are secondhand smokers).

But even the financial argument falls short these days; cigarettes bring in tax revenue of approximately RM3 billion, but Malaysia spent RM6bil in 2020 for just three diseases caused by smoking (lung cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

The true cost is higher, from physical manifestations (smoking affects literally every part of the body) to the mental anguish of watching loved ones die a slow and painful death.

Non-direct costs are even higher – a study by Tan et al, published in 2020, showed that smoking caused RM275bil in loss of productivity.

Targeting the young

Although the overall number of smokers have declined in recent years, the opposite is true of electronic cigarettes (ecigs).

The popularity of ecigs is spurred by the additive nature of nicotine-laden juice that is inhaled whenever a user vapes, alongside aggressive marketing.

Although ostensibly billed as a quit-smoking device, vape advertising does not appear to be aimed solely at current smokers.

The use of key opinion leaders, colourful merchandise, flavouring and messaging that oozes sexual connotations and cries of freedom are reminiscent of the advertising of tobacco products from decades ago.

Both locally and globally, there is increasing concern that vaping is increasingly popular amongst youth, especially given the ease in which nicotine-containing ecigs can be obtained.

Earlier this year (2023), Juul (a popular American ecig brand) announced a USD$462mil (RM2,929mil) settlement with several states in the United States to resolve lawsuits claiming that the company aggressively marketed its ecigs to youth and fuelled a vaping crisis.

According to New York’s attorney-general, Letitia James, “Juul’s lies led to a nationwide public health crisis and put additive products in the hands of minors who thought they were doing something harmless.”

Clarifying the GEG Bill

The Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill – sometimes called the Generational Endgame or “GEG” Bill – is the culmination of more than a decade’s work by the Health Ministry.

At present, there is no single Act that allows us to regulate smoking and vaping.

Given the points elaborated upon above, there is no doubt that there is an urgent need for the ministry to present this Bill to Parliament.

As with any legislation that affects change, there are efforts to confusticate the issue.

It is worth clarifying what the Bill is proposing, and what it is not.

What it is:

  • An effort to protect our youth from becoming nicotine addicts.
  • A single Act incorporating all current tobacco control measures.
  • Regulation for vaping products.
  • A law banning sales of tobacco/vape products to those born after 2007.
  • A law banning the use of cigarettes or vape to those born after 2007. Current smokers/vapers are not affected and can continue their habit (even as the Health Ministry steps up efforts to help them quit).Likewise, revenue for retailers will not be affected for years to come.

What it is not:

  • It does not criminalise the possession of cigarettes or vapes, i.e. possession is not an offence.
  • Those born after 2007 are not forbidden from working in places that sell smoking products.
  • It is not a slippery slope leading to further product bans.The policy is based on science, not ideology.
  • It is not something the ministry has rushed into.There have been extensive engagement sessions with professional bodies, NGOs (both domestic and international) and other stakeholders, e.g. youth and parent associations, as well as industry.

Support from all sides

A Parliamentary Special Select Committee for the Bill, consisting of members from 10 political parties, met last year (2022) to scrutinise this piece of legislation.

In a nod to bipartisanship for the sake of public health, the committee reached a consensus on a final draft.

Many stakeholders have expressed support for the Bill.

They range from our Yang Di-Pertuan Agong to civil society, professional organisations to the medical fraternity, and youth groups to parents and teachers.

Most tellingly, even smokers are supportive, as they do not want the next generation to repeat their mistakes.

Dr Helmy Haja Mydin is a consultant respiratory specialist and a Special Advisor to the Health Minister. For further information, email [email protected]. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

Source: The Star

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