Tougher enforcement needed to stub out smoking, says Malaysian tobacco control council

No smoking

The percentage of Malaysian smokers has gone down, but Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control (MCTC) secretary-general, Muhammad Sha’ani Abdullah, says it does not provide a true picture of the reality on the ground.

Commenting on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) ‘Global report on trends in prevalence of tobacco use 2000-2030’, Sha’ani said the number of smokers in Malaysia had increased.

In the report released yesterday, WHO stated that Malaysia’s tobacco use prevalence trends among people aged 15 years and older fell to 21.6 per cent of the population in 2022, a drop from 29.7 per cent in 2000.

It further stated that the figure would drop to 20 per cent in 2025, and 18.5 per cent by 2030. The figures, however, fall short of the Malaysian government’s National Strategic Plan on Tobacco Control 2021-2030 target to see a reduction of 15 per cent by 2025.

Malaysia’s population in 2000 was nearly 23 million, which meant that 29.7 per cent, or 6,831,000 Malaysians were smokers.

Fast forward, and Malaysia’s population has increased to 33.4 million, and 21.6 per cent of that is equivalent to 7,214,400 smokers.

“The population has increased in the past 20 years. So, the number of smokers is more,” said Sha’ani.

“There has been plenty of literature and education about the dangers of smoking, but it is the ‘tidak apa’ (lackadaisical) attitude of smokers, and enforcement, which makes it difficult to eliminate it.”

Sha’ani said he had had to “grow extra thick skin”, calling out smokers who chose to light up in public spaces and no-smoking zones.

“They would always reply with ‘Who are you?’, or ‘Mind your business’, but I will continue to speak out,” said Sha’ani.

“It is frustrating. It is not about education, as smokers know they are wrong. They can’t be bothered to follow the rules because they know enforcement is poor.

“The same goes in government buildings. Some of the top brass smoke in the office, even though they are not supposed to. They are not setting a good example. I would prefer it if every department head ensured compliance by all personnel.”

Sha’ani added that a Public Service Department circular from 1984, prohibited smoking in all government premises.

He added that designated smoking areas should be seven metres from entrances and exits, windows, and ventilation intakes to prevent smoke from drifting back into the building. However, this is not adhered to.

“In Malaysia, many see designated smoking zones as just a place to puff away. They do not consider the dangers of second-hand smoke,” he said.

“I know of some multinational companies that have a rule that smokers can only re-enter the building 30 minutes after their last puff – usually during the lunch break.

“In many foreign countries and companies, they follow the rules and regulations, so much so that many smokers have decided that it would be easier to just give up the habit.

“Once again, we are not enforcing the proper rules in Malaysia.”

Sha’ani said consumer groups had been pushing for a smoking ban since the 1970s, but to no avail, and the National Strategic Plan on Tobacco Control 2015-2020 had targeted for a tobacco endgame by 2045, but that was brought forward to 2040 under the National Strategic Plan on Tobacco Control 2021-2030.

“That is why the initial Anti-Smoking Bill had provisions for the generational end game (GEG) which forbade Malaysians born on, or after Jan 1, 2007, from purchasing or ingesting tobacco products. That, could have been effective in dealing with this issue,” he said.

“There are two ways to reduce or eliminate smoking – get smokers to quit, and prevent people from picking up the habit. But the amended Bill, passed in Parliament last November, omitted the GEG. We will fight on.”

Sha’ani added that MCTC is also raising awareness about the dangers of vaping as there is a misconception that it is safe.

“Some claim it is safer to vape than to smoke, but there are still over 2,000 chemicals in the vape liquid.”