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Smoke-filled eateries reflect our apathy

Smoking in eateries is prohibited by law, yet in almost every such place around the country smokers are puffing away.

The threat of prosecution for such offences has become a noticeable lie. Who is to blame for such a national apathy? A few, really.

Start with the so-called “enlightened” among us. When former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin was trying to rally the support of 221 lawmakers behind the tobacco generational endgame (GEG) bill last year, two parliamentarians with pretensions of protecting the young accused the proposed legislation of “criminalising” the youth.

Shockingly, some human rights organisations joined them in the accusation. A few others think lighting up is about choice. This is a perversion of the unkind kind. To these, we say go read the medical journals.

Smoking is a deadly habit. If 10,000 Malaysians die of smoking-related ailments every year, it must be a deadly disease.

And it is a costly habit, too. No, we are not just talking about the money being burned daily by smokers. We are talking of the big hole smokers cause to the national coffers. According to Khairy, the country spent — perhaps we should say, wasted — RM6.2 billion in 2020 to treat lung cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, all three being smoking-related ailments.

For those lawmakers and businessmen who ceaselessly back the tobacco trade for bringing in tax revenue, here is the brutal truth: Malaysia earned only RM3 billion from tobacco sales. Tobacco companies don’t really light up the economy, do they? The enforcement agencies, our second source of national apathy, must share a good portion of the blame.

They were first-day wonders, springing into action on Jan 1, 2019 when the smoking ban came into effect. They were a fine team, issuing compounds aplenty. The media, too, gave the impression that enforcement agencies were serious about making eateries smoke-free zones. But they weren’t.

An old Malay adage best explains this peculiarly Malaysian first-day wonder: hangat-hangat tahi ayam. Literally, for as long as the chicken droppings are hot, which is not long. On Friday Bernama quoted the Health Ministry’s deputy director-general of public health, Datuk Dr Norhayati Rusli, as saying 30,648 compound notices were issued nationwide to smokers in eateries.

In a nation of five million smokers, many of whom are serial ban-busters, the number isn’t something to write home about. Granted, enforcement agencies cannot be everywhere all the time. That would require five million enforcement officers, one for every smoker in the country. Try smart enforcement. Map the ban-busting eateries and focus the efforts there.

Even in Singapore the enforcers are not everywhere, but there they fine them out of their anti-social habit. Singapore is a fine city-state because once the government implements a policy none dares to break it. We must emulate our southern neighbour. Begin by being serious about enforcement. No plastic lies such as offenders will be prosecuted, please.

Finally, those tasked with educating smokers out of their bad habit are doing a poor job. Our leaders aren’t helping either with their mixed messages. If we want to make Malaysia progressively smoke-free we must begin now.

No one says banning smoking is easy. But we must not surrender before the war is fought. To imply that banning smoking is a Sisyphean task is to encourage smokers to continue puffing.

Source: New Straits Times

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