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Booming illicit trade casts pall on hopes to ban smoking, even with tougher laws

While the highest percentage of smokers in the country is from the low-income bracket, questions remain as to how the government will implement and enforce the ban in rural areas beyond the cities.

Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
3 minute read
In Malaysia, the highest percentage of smokers comes from the B40 or Bottom 40 group who have a household income of RM4,850 or less.
In Malaysia, the highest percentage of smokers comes from the B40 or Bottom 40 group who have a household income of RM4,850 or less.

These days, Muhammad Nazleen smokes anywhere from three to five cigarettes a day. Sometimes, the number of sticks varies and he ends up finishing seven instead. 

For Nazleen, who goes by the nickname Naz, smoking has been a way of life since he was 16. 

He began smoking due to the influence of his friends at school. At that point, he could only afford to buy one cigarette a day from his friends who would sell them to him at RM1.50 per stick after school. 

"After I finished school, I bought my own cigarettes at the store," he said in a recent interview with MalaysiaNow. 

"Now, I smoke about 20 boxes each month." 

Naz currently lives in Bandar Baru Salak Tinggi Sepang and works as a salesperson at KLIA, earning RM2,050 a month. Of this, he estimates that RM400 to RM650 is spent on cigarettes. 

Each box costs him about RM21, and he buys 20 or sometimes as many as 30 boxes each month. 

The health ministry 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 a bid to curb the smoking habit among the future generation. 

The proposal was met with mixed reactions, with strong objection from a number of associations and restaurant operators. 

Others meanwhile say that banning cigarettes and vape products can help protect the low-income groups which are more prone to the habit than those in the higher income bracket. 

In Malaysia, the highest percentage of smokers comes 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 folk disagree

In Gemas, Negeri Sembilan, a group of villagers said they were against the health ministry's move to ban smoking.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, they said it was akin to coercion.

Instead of enforcing a ban, they said, the health ministry should focus its efforts on educating the youth about why they should avoid smoking. 

Zali, a rubber tapper in his 30s, said prohibiting smoking and vaping did not mean that an entire generation would stop or forget about the activity. 

Instead, he said, it would open up opportunities for certain quarters to sell and distribute cigarettes on the black market. 

"Right now, there's no way that villagers can buy cigarettes at stores," he said. "Only the rich can afford to do that. 

"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 RM10. 

At these prices, the villagers spend only about RM150 a month on cigarettes. 

"The old ones smoke after they finish work at the rubber and oil palm plantations," Zali said. 

"At most, they smoke two sticks a day. Ten boxes a month is considered a lot. The young ones might smoke a bit more." 

He said the villagers rarely heard complaints about the price of cigarettes as the supply of illicit cigarettes was always there. 

Illicit cigarettes

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 an estimated 12 billion cigarettes smuggled into the country are sold each year. 

A food stall owner in Gemencheh who called himself Ashraf said even if the health ministry's bill is accepted and passed, it might not be obeyed given how difficult it is to confirm the age and identity of customers. 

Citing his experience of running a business during the pandemic, he said he had dealt with many customers who refused to show him their vaccination status on MySejahtera. 

"If you want them to show their ICs to prove their age, I think this will be even harder," he said. 

"The majority of traders might just let it slide. That, too, is a risk," he added. 

"How is the government going to make sure that traders in the rural areas and villages follow the rules? It's all a lot of trouble." 

The health ministry has yet to release details on how it intends to implement its proposal, although the tabling of the bill in Parliament is expected to shed more light on its enforcement strategy. 

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