Malaysia doesn’t have a drinking problem

JUNE 3 ― The Health Ministry inexplicably decided to impose health warnings on alcohol products, akin to the ones on cigarette packs, and to raise the legal drinking age to 21 from 18.

The warning labels, enforceable from December 1, 2017, say that alcohol consumption can be hazardous to health, even though some research shows that moderate drinking is correlated with a lower likelihood of developing coronary heart disease or stroke.

Alcohol consumption is not a huge problem in Malaysia.

According to the World Health Organization’s global status report on alcohol and health 2014, Malaysia ranked 162nd out of 191 countries on alcohol consumption per capita at just 1.3 litres in 2010. Compare this to Belarus, the country with the highest alcohol consumption per capita at 17.5 litres, or other developed countries that rank high on the list like France (12.2 litres), Australia (12.2 litres) or the United Kingdom (11.6 litres).

Prevalence for alcohol use disorders and alcohol dependence are only 2.4 per cent and 1.1 per cent in Malaysia respectively. Age-standardised death rates for liver cirrhosis are 11.1 and 5.4 for Malaysian men and women respectively per 100,000 population. Compare this to Egypt that has the highest rates at 122.3 and 67.8 for men and women respectively.

Mandating health warnings makes Malaysia seem like a nanny state. Instead of trying to legislate almost every arena of our private lives, the government should focus on education and give citizens the liberty to choose what they want to consume.

If the government insists on issuing public health warnings on products they deem harmful, then why don’t they slap them on junk food, sugary carbonated drinks or kuih instead of alcoholic beverages? Those products with high sugar and fat content are just as “hazardous” to health, if not even more so than a glass of wine.

But we don't go around imposing health warnings on these products. We allow them to be advertised freely because we recognise that consumers can make up their own minds about what they want to eat and drink, even if it's unhealthy.

Consumers just need to be educated on healthy eating and more importantly, healthy food needs to be made affordable, rather than raising taxes, issuing health warnings, and imposing plain packaging on certain food and beverages, which is reportedly the talk in several countries in line with tobacco plain packaging.

The government is intervening in business by prohibiting the branding of cigarettes and mandating health warnings on the labels of alcoholic beverages. Businesses should be free to operate and to promote their products as they see fit, as long as they don't engage in false advertising.

Yet, Malaysia appears to focus too much on regulating the so-called “sin” products of alcohol and tobacco while ignoring the bigger problem of obesity.

According to a study by British medical journal The Lancet, Malaysia is the most obese country in Asia.

The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2015 revealed that almost half of Malaysians are overweight or obese. The obese comprise almost 18 per cent of the population, or more than five million people, while 30 per cent are overweight.

Malaysia doesn’t have a drinking problem; we have a fat problem.

We have mamak restaurants that are open 24/7 where people have heavy meals late at night. Our town planning prioritises cars over walking or cycling. Then there is the culture of serving food at all government meetings and events.

Obesity is reportedly a risk factor in preventable illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It’s also linked to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the US, where more than one-third of adults are obese, was US$147 billion (RM609.9 billion).

What are the Malaysian government’s plans to tackle obesity? For a start, the government could reduce food served at official functions and eradicate the culture of minum pagi and minum petang. Why don’t we have more education programmes on keeping fit and eating healthy too?

Town planning should also move away from building highways to creating more train and bus networks, or cycling lanes.

With more overweight and obese Malaysians than alcoholics, it’s time to shift the direction of public health policy to where it really matters.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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