While the rest of the pro and anti-tobacco movements are arguing over whether or not to reintroduce packs of 10 cigarettes, could we perhaps ask where is the government in terms of the regulations for e-cigarettes?
It has been a year with no update thus far on this matter, and perhaps, it is time to revisit the topic of harm reduction when it comes to nicotine consumption.
So, where are the regulations to offer people a choice away from cigarettes to something less harmful to themselves and those surrounding them?
Without injecting the argument for e-cigarettes, vape devices, and even heat-not-burn devices, then we will have to admit that the current anti-tobacco policies are not working because there is currently half of the market smoking illicit cigarettes.
In fact, that figure is actually higher among Malaysian youths – and this was based on a survey done by the Ministry of Health (MOH) themselves.
In their Tobacco & E-cigarette Survey Among Malaysian Adolescents (TECMA) done in 2016, 11.7 percent of youths surveyed were found to be smokers.
Of this number, it was found that 71.3 percent of youth smokers bought packs of cigarettes for under RM9.
With the minimum cigarette price of RM10, it is clear that our young are smoking illicit cigarettes.
It is also a clear reflection of the older generation of smokers as well, contrary to a UPM study done by senior lecturer Dr Norashidah Mohamed Noor in April that it was just “inaccurate and describing the demand for such contraband to be relatively stable”.
And quite honestly, MOH and relevant departments are lying through their teeth if the number of smokers that have increased by 250,000 in a five-year period is somehow considered a victory.
I want to first make it clear that by promoting e-cigarettes, I am not promoting teens to start smoking, or even vaping for that matter. Personally, the issue of enforcement on youth smoking and vaping should be dealt with just as seriously as the illicit tobacco trade in the country.
But at the same time, we must continue to encourage adult smokers to move away from cigarettes or at least towards lesser damaging products.
Thus, we need the e-cigarettes and other such devices to be offered as a practical and effective alternative, and it must be seen not as a fear of “more smoke”, when in fact it is vapour - which is less damaging than the diesel smoke generators you find at concerts.
To that end, perhaps MOH can clarify where we have reached in terms of coming up with proper regulations for such devices?
Hopefully the MOH, other relevant ministries and stakeholders have been having productive discussions to introduce sensible regulation on these alternatives to cigarettes.
After all, it would be a better topic than having a senseless and absurd discussion on whether or not 10 or 20 cigarettes in a pack can kill people faster.
Furthermore, we should also take a look at it as an opportunity for local businesses to flourish and innovate – perhaps even look to other markets where vaping and such have been established to not only reap profits, but also achieve the greatest objective of all in bettering public health.
More importantly, these alternatives can reduce smokers and subsequently reduce the number of those exposed to second-hand smoke which will in the future reduce the burden on our healthcare system.
To such an end, we even have doctors in other countries, promoting such less harmful alternatives to cigarettes. Perhaps we should have MOH look at this as another way to encourage people to move away from cigarettes? We need to be more pragmatic and so does MOH.
Meanwhile, there is nothing actually banning the introduction of e-cigarettes on an international level. In fact, anti-tobacco group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), based in the United Kingdom, even promotes it as an alternative in their paper published February 2016.
Even the UK government under Public Health England said it was 95 percent less harmful when compared to cigarettes two years ago.
So in the end, perhaps the government can answer the following question.
Is the Malaysian government deliberately lagging in doing something that can reduce the burden on the healthcare system, combat illicit cigarette and having less harmful alternatives to cigarettes for smokers who are looking for such products?
If this fails, these smokers may be forced to continue buying cigarettes or other less harmful alternatives, from the illicit market.
Honestly, I see nothing beneficial from this tiff over small or large packs since it does nothing to actually benefit general public health. Instead, we need the regulation for e-cigarettes and other harm reducing products approved, not banned, if we are serious about helping people live healthier lifestyles.