Commentary Local

Let’s focus on smoke-free alternatives to smoking

November 29, 2018

by Hashim Iskandar

NO one in their right mind would object to the Health Ministry’s efforts to reduce smoking in Malaysia. This is a step in the right direction.

However, the proposed ban on smoking in public areas does not address the core issues of this problem. It places undue burden on unrelated parties. It will also, unfortunately make quitting even more arduous and painful for existing smokers.

Only nicotine-free vapes are exempt from this ban.

This stipulation is flawed for two reasons. One, nicotine and nicotine-free vapes are indistinguishable. Two, nicotine-dependent smokers are disincentivised to switch from combustible tobacco cigarettes to less harmful alternatives.

Demanding that eateries monitor their patrons and enforce a nicotine-smoking ban is unfair and probably won’t work. It will also be costly, ineffective and intrusive for government agencies to do this as well.

The harms and negative externalities of combustible tobacco cigarettes are today widely understood. However, it took 90 years for consumers and governments to learn about the harms of carcinogens and tar in cigarettes and another 50 years for the industry to admit that smoking may be fatal.

There is now a growing scientific evidence based on independent research  on alternatives including the one published by UK’s highly-regarded Public Health England that acknowledges the fact that vape and “heat not burn” alternatives are less harmful than cigarettes.

The agency has even encouraged smokers to switch to safer alternatives as part of their quit-smoking program.

Indeed, studies have shown that the lack of combustion in “heat not burn” products can eliminate 90 per cent of the toxicants associated with smoking cigarettes.

In the same vein, the Ministry should be working to encourage smokers to switch to alternatives while also minimizing the impact the latter has on non-smokers.

In New Zealand, plans are underway to change the way vaping products are displayed in retail stores to prevent exposure to the young.

What the Kiwis are basically doing is providing regulation as well as guidelines to alternatives to cigarettes, including the “heat not burn” category, which claims to not produce second-hand smoke.

The country has seen marked improvements in rates of smoking, from 18.3 per cent in 2014/15 to 13.8 per cent in 2016/17 according to a statement made by Associate Minister of Health Jenny Salesa this year.

Japan, on the other hand, is implementing a public smoking ban ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics while encouraging smokers to switch to alternative, smoke-free products.   

In contrast, Malaysia’s Health Ministry is slapping taxes on cigarettes and is in the process of drafting legislation to require medical prescriptions to use electronic cigarettes and vapes.

The side effect of this, unfortunately, is that it encourages illicit trade, which leads to a massive loss of revenue to government coffers without anything to reduce smoking rates.

Research has shown that smokers are unlikely to respond to price disincentives and that nicotine-withdrawal is physically and mentally debilitating.

Some 22.8 per cent of Malaysians aged 15 and above are smokers. To tackle Malaysia’s smoking epidemic, the Health Ministry ought to make the transition away from harmful combustible cigarettes easier for smokers while stringently controlling the quality and sale of alternative products.

Consumers need to also be exposed to these alternatives, as well as what the best practices are when choosing which to buy.

Some quarters have proposed that such products should only be sold in pharmacies. However, this might prevent access for smokers who would otherwise switch to them if they were available elsewhere.

It would be better for the government to adopt more discriminate regulation – restricting access to harmful smoking products, especially for non-smokers and the young, while encouraging the use of and easing the access to healthier alternatives for existing smokers.

Again, no one is questioning the good intentions behind the smoking ban. But the matter needs careful study and leeway needs to be given so that the pathways to smoke-free alternatives are not prematurely closed.

 

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