Shortly after finishing her lunch at a Malaysian food court, 21-year-old university student Emily Lee came out, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “I usually smoke a pack a day,” she said. “I almost always smoke right after a meal.”
Lee said she started smoking when she was 17, a year below the legal smoking age in Malaysia. “I had a group of friends who smoked so I started and quickly got addicted to nicotine.”
Government statistics show that one in five Malaysians aged 15 and over smoke, around 40% of them men. There are more than 27,000 tobacco-related deaths in the country every year.
“This is a major problem because many people are losing their lives to smoke-related lung cancer,” said Azrul Mohd Khalib, chief executive of the nonprofit Galen Center for Health and Social Policy. lucrative health and policy research. However, Malaysian Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has announced plans to permanently ban the sale of all tobacco and tobacco products, including vapes as well as e-cigarettes, to anyone born after the year. 2005 as part of a “generational end game” for smoking in the country.
The proposal comes after New Zealand announced plans to raise the legal smoking age by one year each year to permanently ban the sale of tobacco to anyone born after 2008.
Malaysia’s proposal has drawn praise from many of the country’s leading health advocates. “It means there will be a lot fewer new smokers in the years to come,” Azrul said, calling the proposal a “good idea.”
But there is a lot of skepticism that it will actually work.
“The intention is good, but I don’t know if it will actually stop anyone from smoking,” Lee said. “Stores don’t always verify IDs; older people will buy for someone who is underage, plus so many smokers just buy cigarettes under the table because they are so much cheaper.
It is well known throughout Malaysia that there is a thriving black market for tobacco products. A 2020 study by the Malaysian Confederation of Tobacco Manufacturers concluded that more than 60% of cigarettes consumed in the country came from the black market.
In several convenience stores, employees, upon request, took out illegally imported cigarettes from under the counter. They often sell for less than half the price of legal ones.
“His [the proposed ban] is not going to reduce consumption, it is only going to increase illegal cigarette consumption, which in Malaysia is already extremely high,” said Carmelo Ferlito, chief executive of the Center for Market Education, a libertarian think tank in Malaysia.
Ferlito believes that if Parliament passes the proposal, it will lead to a situation similar to what happened during Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, when a ban on alcohol led to a huge market undercover run by organized crime.
“So we [Malaysia] will have our very own Al Capone [crime boss] for contraband tobacco,” Ferlito told VOA.
Azrul acknowledges the challenges the country’s black market poses to the proposal’s chances of stopping significant numbers of Malaysians from starting to smoke or vape. “The policy will succeed if we are able to crack down on the issues of corruption, lack of enforcement but also political will,” Azrul said. “But it will fail if society does not support the policy.”
The proposed age ban also raises financial concerns for many businesses as the country tries to recover from the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors General Association, whose members include many owners of semi-enclosed outdoor food courts that are popular across Malaysia, released a statement calling the plan “a step in the right direction, but Malaysia is not ready”.
The association said the proposal would drive more smokers into the black market and “seriously endanger the livelihoods of our 20,000 traders”. The association said cigarette sales accounted for about 30% of its members’ income.
Ferlito said people smoke for fun and the government will not be able to stop it. “A more effective strategy would eventually be to steer people towards less harmful products such as vaping,” Ferlito said.
But Azrul of the Galen Center for Health and Social Policy disagrees.
“We see smokers who transition to vaping thinking they can quit that way but end up with another form of addiction that they need treatment for,” Azrul said. “Today, we treat both smokers and vapers in our smoking cessation clinics.”
Among the public, the proposed age ban on tobacco and smoking products is receiving mixed reviews.
“It won’t work,” said Ni’ Aliah Amira, a 21-year-old university student who vapes regularly. “People are going to find all these [loop] black holes.”
Jordan Lee (no relation to Emily), a 25-year-old non-smoker, supports the proposed age ban. “If society as a whole wants it to work, it will work,” Lee said. “We should try.”