Rising illicit trade dims hopes of banning smoking, even with tougher laws
These days, Muhammad Nazleen smokes between three and five cigarettes a day. Sometimes the number of sticks varies and he ends up finishing seven instead.
For Nazleen, nicknamed Naz, smoking has been a way of life since the age of 16.
He started smoking under the influence of his friends at school. At that time, he could only afford to buy one cigarette a day from his friends who would sell them to him at RM1.50 a stick after school.
“After I finished school, I bought my own cigarettes from the store,” he said in a recent interview with MalaysiaNow.
“Now I smoke about 20 cans a month.”
Naz currently lives in Bandar Baru Salak Tinggi Sepang and works as a salesperson at KLIA, earning RM2,050 per month. Of this amount, he estimates that RM400-650 is spent on cigarettes.
Each box costs him around RM21, and he buys 20 or sometimes as many as 30 boxes each month.
The Ministry of Health has recently proposed the tabling of a bill to control tobacco use and smoking in the country. The bill includes a ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 2005, as part of an attempt to curb the smoking habit among the future generation.
The proposal drew mixed reactions, with strong objection from a number of associations and restaurateurs.
Others say banning cigarettes and vaping products can help protect lower-income groups who are more prone to the habit than those in the higher income bracket.
In Malaysia, the highest percentage of smokers come from the B40 or Bottom 40 group who have a household income of RM4,850 or less.
Concerns have been raised about the financial burden of smoking on the B40 group, especially amid the rising cost of living.
Rural people disagree
In Gemas, Negeri Sembilan, a group of villagers said they were against the Health Ministry’s decision to ban smoking.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, they said it amounted to coercion.
Instead of imposing a ban, they said, the Department of Health should focus its efforts on educating young people about why they should avoid smoking.
Zali, a rubber sapper in his 30s, said banning smoking and vaping doesn’t mean an entire generation will stop or forget about the activity.
Instead, he said, it would open up opportunities for some neighborhoods to sell and distribute cigarettes on the black market.
“At the moment, there is no way for villagers to buy cigarettes from shops,” he said. “Only the rich can afford to do this.
“Most people here buy cigarettes that are smuggled in. They bring in cheap cigarettes from Thailand.”
Zali estimates that a single box of illicit cigarettes costs between RM7 and 10.
At these prices, villagers only spend around RM150 per month on cigarettes.
“The elders smoke after they finish working in the rubber and palm oil plantations,” Zali said.
“They smoke a maximum of two sticks a day. Ten boxes a month is a lot. The young people smoke maybe a little more.”
He said villagers rarely heard complaints about the price of cigarettes because the supply of illicit cigarettes was always there.
Malaysia has been ranked as the country with the highest position in the illicit cigarette trade.
Some 64.5% of cigarettes in the country are illegal and around 12 billion cigarettes smuggled into the country are sold each year.
A food stall owner in Gemencheh who went by the name Ashraf said that even if the health ministry bill were accepted and passed, it might not be enforced given the difficulty of confirming age and the identity of customers.
Citing his experience running a business during the pandemic, he said he had dealt with many clients who refused to show him their vaccination status on MySejahtera.
“If you want them to show their CI to prove their age, I think that will be even more difficult,” he said.
“The majority of traders might just give up. That too is a risk,” he added.
“How is the government going to make sure traders in rural areas and villages follow the rules? That’s a lot of problems.”
The Department of Health has yet to release details on how it intends to implement its proposal, although tabling the bill in parliament should shed more light on its enforcement strategy.