One the one hand, I have to say that I agree with the intention of the government of wanting to increase the price of cigarettes in Malaysia. Their hope is that the sharp hike will deter people from smoking.
Currently, a pack of cigarettes cost RM17 and the plan is to bring it up to RM21.50 per pack. This will be part of the Tobacco Products and Cigarettes Bill that will be tabled in Parliament sometime next year.
Logically, the increase of price should be something that will make smokers think twice before reaching for the lighter. Unfortunately, smoking is an addiction and addicts will always find a way to get their fix, and many would continue to part with their money.
So, on the other hand, I don’t believe that increasing the price of cigarettes will do anything to deter smokers who are already smoking. They are either willing to spend or they will just turn to the other alternative, which is looking for and buying illicit cigarettes.
Illicit cigarettes aren’t that difficult to get. Currently, the sale of illegal cigarettes amounts to up to 57.1 percent of the legal sales of cigarettes in the country based on a Nielsen Malaysia study conducted in December 2016 and this is definitely a big loss in taxes for the government.
Also, according to Deputy Health Minister Dr Hilmi Yahaya, all the anti-smoking campaigns that have been executed by the government have resulted in no significant results. He noted that the government has spent RM2 million a year since 2004 on these campaigns.
I think we need to realise that countries that are considered third world have the highest number of smokers compared to those that are first world. One can deduce that this is because of the actual health awareness that exists and that people want to be healthier.
So maybe all these anti-smoking campaigns might not be the solution. What could probably be the better solution is actually trying to promote and encourage the desire of having a healthy lifestyle among Malaysians.
What I mean is that we should not focus on trying to create anti-smoking awareness, but to encourage everyone to be healthy overall. Everyone knows smoking is unhealthy anyway. So just create a strong desire to eat healthy, exercise, and do everything healthy.
That will directly cause people to practice a healthy lifestyle, and everyone knows that cigarettes have no part in a healthy lifestyle. So, no-hard-sell anti-smoking campaigns. Just encourage a healthy lifestyle, and cigarettes will naturally be phased out.
But it isn’t just one thing that will eliminate smoking in the country. It has to be a combination of several different efforts and encouraging a healthy lifestyle is just one of it. And yes, increasing the price of cigarettes has to be one of the efforts too.
The next one could just very well be enforcement. The authorities need to step up the efforts to enforce the law so that it becomes much tougher and riskier for those who are illegally smuggling, trading and selling cigarettes.
Currently, the law under Section 135 (1) (d) of the Customs Act 1967 states that those found guilty of being in possession of illicit cigarettes can be fined up to 20 times the value of the contraband cigarettes or jailed for up to three years or both.
It isn’t a hopeless battle. Hilmi did reveal that the National Health and Morbidity study showed that smoking among those ages 18 and under went down to 24 percent in 2015 from 24.6 percent in 2011. Small decrease, but a decrease nonetheless.
The next generation is who we should be targeting. They are the ones who haven’t yet started smoking and we just need to focus on them so that they don’t start. Targeting those who are already smoking might just be a lost cause.
But it’s good that the government still isn’t giving up on them. There are 774 anti-smoking centres in government hospitals and clinics that offer free service for those who want to kick the habit of smoking. It is estimated that there are 5 million smokers in Malaysia.
All we need is to have patience. We continue to refine our efforts to break the population’s cigarette habit, be consistent and stick to our guns. The results will slowly and surely come. It may seem to be slow at the moment, but once it gains momentum, I am convinced that we will become a healthier nation.
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