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Time to look into a fact-driven smoking policy

Some 27,000 people in Malaysia are killed by health problems associated with tobacco products each year, according to statistics from the health ministry.

Sebastian Wong
3 minute read

As the country battles the raging Covid-19 pandemic, which is at its worst yet, we should not lose sight of another perennial health problem: the toll inflicted from the use of tobacco products.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic reached our shores, some 2,700 people have died. By comparison, some 27,000 people in Malaysia are killed by health problems associated with tobacco products each year, according to statistics from the health ministry.

The comparison is not to dismiss the gravity of the global Covid-19 pandemic which has killed over three million around the world so far. But as vaccination is stepped up globally and experts’ understanding of the coronavirus improves, Covid-19 may in the future, be treated no more seriously than the common flu.

By which time, unless we do something drastic, Malaysia will be no closer to resolving the health woes associated with the use of tobacco products, which has killed hundreds of thousands over the decades. Unlike pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 which causes Covid-19, smoking is a lifestyle problem and not a disease in itself.

As someone who has lost two close family members, one to lung cancer and another to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, I can attest that short of a total ban on tobacco products, getting smokers to kick the habit is almost always an exercise in futility.

Even raising cigarette prices will not be enough to deter smokers from the prospect of being tormented by debilitating lung and respiratory-related health issues, including cancer and premature death. Not when contraband cigarettes can easily find their way into the local black market.

As we marked World No Tobacco Day on May 31, we need to ask ourselves if we actually understand the real issues surrounding tobacco use in this country. Can we come up with more pragmatic solutions to tackle one of the main causes of deaths not due to natural causes, in Malaysia?

First, we need to clear up some misconceptions about smoking and what it does to our health. One of the most commonly cited contents of cigarette/tobacco smoke is nicotine. The common misconception is that nicotine is harmful to the human body. The truth is, nicotine is merely a highly addictive substance which is relatively harmless to the human body.

Nicotine is only dangerous in that it causes addiction and results in smokers’ prolonged exposure to the more noxious content in cigarettes, which are carbon monoxide and tar.

Carbon monoxide is fairly well-known for the damage it causes and the danger it poses. Tar is the solid and liquid residue in cigarette smoke, after nicotine and water have been removed. Tar contains most of the cancer-causing and other harmful chemicals found in tobacco smoke. When tobacco smoke is inhaled, tar forms a sticky layer on the insides of the lungs, affecting our oxygen absorption rate.

Most damagingly, tar affects the cilia in the lungs, making it a lot easier for the toxins in tar to travel deeper into the lungs and then into the bloodstream and subsequently be transported to other parts of the body.

The tar produced by burning tobacco is the most dangerous by-product of smoking cigarettes – more so than nicotine. This is why cigarette companies have rolled out cigarette brands which have different tar content (regular and light cigarettes).

However, the use of e-cigarettes and vapes has been on the rise, both of which do not burn tobacco and therefore do not produce tar. Although the long-term effects on the use of these alternatives have yet to be scientifically confirmed, the absence of tar as a byproduct is in itself a comforting knowledge. These alternatives also have no effect on the health of bystanders in the way that cigarettes do via second-hand and third-hand smoking.

Perhaps it is time that regulators are more open to the idea of giving these alternatives a chance, to reduce the use of conventional cigarettes. Haven’t we flushed away enough money on campaigns that do not achieve the desired results? How many more deaths do we want to see before we come to our senses that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

It’s time to think outside the box for a problem that in the long run, is more acute than the one that caused lockdowns, launched a national vaccination plan and chalked up a far higher body count.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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