Tobacco Bill: Enact it now, GEG can come later

As a Deputy Minister, I am a member of the administration and, by convention, not supposed to comment on the bills presented by other ministries. Allow me to share my view as a person who is concerned about public health and the well-being of the people.

I have followed the Control of Smoking Products For Public Health Bill 2023 in Dewan Rakyat with interest and felt compelled to say that the public debate surrounding the Bill doesn’t do sufficient justice to the merits and strengths of the Bill.

The “GEG (generation end game) or nothing” narrative put forward by a former Health Minister is a false dichotomy. There is always a choice.

After decades, finally there will be a dedicated and standalone Act controlling the use of tobacco, and that itself is a major achievement in Malaysia. This Bill regulates the use of tobacco and all tobacco products, prohibits advertising, promotion, and sponsorship of tobacco products and imitation of tobacco products, etc.

Clause 10 provides wide powers to the Minister through prescribed regulations when it comes to the sale and display for sale of tobacco products.

Clause 13 prohibits the sales of tobacco product, smoking substance or substitute tobacco product, or provide any services of smoking, to a minor.

Clause 15 provides wide powers to the Minister through prescribed regulations when it comes to packaging and labeling.

Australia has successfully implemented plain packaging for cigarettes since 2012 with research showing its effectiveness. The provisions in the Bill, if pursued to the maximum extent by the Ministry, with the help of all relevant government agencies,will be a new beginning for Malaysia.

What a waste it was when such a good legislation is tied to a “GEG or nothing” dichotomy.

The former Health Minister attempted to present the Bill to Parliament in July 2022 but faced serious doubts and opposition. He was given an opportunity to decouple the GEG from the main legislation to get it passed by Dewan Rakyat on that day itself. But he refused.

The former minister wanted to force the Parliament to pass the Bill without amendments, without the decoupling of GEG from the main Bill. He refused compromise and wanted to push the Bill to the October 2022 session but by then the Parliament was dissolved.

Passing the Control of the Tobacco Bill now, even without the GEG, is a great start to a much tighter control over the use of tobacco. The GEG can be put forward later with more consultations and acceptance among the public.

One of the countries that officially passed a GEG legislation, New Zealand, just had its new government announcing the intention to abolish GEG!

During the Pakatan Harapan administration, the then Health Minister was ferociously attacked by the Opposition for wanting to ban smoking at eateries. Many of these Opposition members are now attacking the Unity Government for decoupling GEG from the main Bill.

I hope all in policy making and in law-making be prepared to legislate on common grounds and take a gradualist approach while allowing much newer ideas like GEG to be tested in public debates for a longer time.

We should be wary of certain leaders who wanted to force us on fake choices such as the “GEG or nothing” narrative, or merely those who enjoy attacking anything that the Government wants to implement for the sake of the people.

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