Everybody, including tobacco companies, is now agreed that smoking is detrimental to good health. You only have to look at the cigarette packets to know this.
Nicotine is a powerful addictive drug. If you get hooked, it is very tough to give up smoking.
The best cure is prevention — stop people from taking up the smoking habit in the first place. That means the target must be the young — discourage them by all means fair from picking up the habit in the first place.
This does not mean that the effort to encourage smokers to give up should be stopped altogether. Many people have given up smoking, and others need to be encouraged in this.
Smoking, after all, is the number one cause of preventable disease. It raises the possibility of getting cancer, it exacerbates all manner of respiratory ailments and directly contributes to others, and it increases the incidence of heart disease.
We need guts and gumption to deal with this. Here are 10 ways to show we have it.
1. Increase cigarette prices. This, done by raising taxes, is probably the most effective way of discouraging the habit, short of banning it outright. But the problem is that it encourages the sale of contraband cigarettes on which tax has not been paid.
Thus, increasing cigarette prices must be accompanied by vigorous attempts to stamp out the sale of illegal cigarettes. Which leads us to the next point.
2. Check sales of contraband cigarettes. Not only does this require that Customs officers work tirelessly and without favour but it also requires the clear identification of cigarettes on which duty has not been paid.
It also requires strict monitoring of international and local cigarette companies to ensure that their output does not get to smugglers.
If this is successful on a global basis, then no cigarette company can sell to a smuggler and the supply source will be throttled. One simple way of doing this is in Point 3.
3. Specify the region of sale on the pack. All cigarettes sold in Malaysia should have a clear label saying that the cigarettes are for sale only in Malaysia. Any cigarette that does not have this marking on the pack should be considered contraband and heavy penalties should be levied on those selling such cigarettes.
This is simple and effective in fighting contraband sales, but cigarettes sold in Malaysia don't carry such a statement.
4. Restrict outlets that sell cigarettes. Considering the harm that cigarettes do, the outlets which sell cigarettes should be severely limited. Right now cigarettes are available just about everywhere — corner shops, convenience stores, grocers, supermarkets, five-foot ways, stalls, etc.
The Government should license the sale of cigarettes to a limited number of outlets, much like they do for liquor, so that you need a cigarette licence to sell cigarettes. This will be a powerful tool to limit cigarette distribution.
5. Enforce laws against cigarette smoking. There are already many laws against cigarette smoking but these are not sufficiently enforced. People still smoke while driving, on buses, in eating places and so on.
And many places still sell cigarettes loose, encouraging the young to experiment with smoking cheaply. The laws must be enforced strictly if they are to work.
6. Do away with smoking areas in restaurants. It is a great annoyance to non-smokers that some of the best seats often seem to be in the smoking sections – those with a view and facing open areas.
Often these areas are not sealed off from the non-smoking areas but are contiguous with them. With enough smokers, there will still be smoke in the restaurant.
The best thing to do is to do away with smoking areas in restaurants altogether. That means smokers will have to get up, leave the premises and smoke in an open area.
7. Ban smoking in all public places, including pubs. A source of constant irritation is that there is just about no pub or nightclub that one can go to without being inundated with smoke which gets into your nose, eyes, hair and even clothes. When you leave these places you almost smell like an ashtray.
There should be a strict ban on smoking in all public spaces, including pubs and nightclubs.
8. Educate the public. Public education is a continuous process, and including proper education about smoking and its dangers in the school curriculum is a very good idea.
What the authorities should also be thinking about is to reinforce this periodically by appropriate programmes, advertising and plain talk. Sometimes, shock-effect advertisements may not have the intended results because the public may perceive them to be stretching the truth.
9. Move tobacco farmers to alternative employment. Tobacco farming has been encouraged by tobacco companies so as to strengthen their argument that the contribution of tobacco to the national economy is significant.
It is better to move tobacco farmers to alternative, more socially accepted occupations so that they are not used to promote tobacco consumption.
10. Adhere to international codes, rules and regulations. The world at large has recognised the dangers of smoking. Most countries in the world are signatories to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which sets out measures that can be taken to discourage smoking.
By adhering to provisions of the code, Malaysia can move forward in the fight against smoking, which statistics show is becoming an increasingly serious problem here.
A phased series of actions based on these lines will go a long way towards checking smoking among our children and discouraging smokers from, well, smoking, thereby reducing the incidence of smoking overall.
It is important not to pull punches because of the cost it might inflict on the tobacco industry. The economic damage that smoking causes through health and productivity costs is far more than the benefits the industry contributes.