Why doesn’t Health Ministry talk about its stop smoking service?

JANUARY 8 — The Ministry of Health (MOH) has taken the commendable step of banning smoking at all restaurants, including open-air establishments.

However, like other policymaking in this country, the latest MOH policy suffers from short-sightedness as the ministry has failed to implement other things in tandem to achieve its overall objectives of protecting non-smokers from secondhand smoke and reducing the number of smokers.

First, smokers have complained about the vague rule of being allowed to smoke three metres from the restaurant, as MOH has not specified how the distance is measured. Neither has the government placed any physical markers or ashtrays that clearly indicate where smoking is permitted.

This will only cause people to smoke indiscriminately and litter on the road.

Public policies must be crafted with as much detail as possible. Otherwise, it will lead to poor enforcement because both the public and enforcers will be clueless about how the rules work.

Non-smokers should, of course, be protected from secondhand smoke in restaurants, but this should not be at the expense of smokers who have the right to use a legal product in public, away from people who do not smoke.

The best way to protect the interests of both non-smokers and smokers is to create designated smoking areas in public. That way, smokers are clear about where they can light up and non-smokers do not have to worry about annoying smokers who puff away while they are walking around in public.

A no-smoking sign is seen at a restaurant in George Town January 7, 2019. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
A no-smoking sign is seen at a restaurant in George Town January 7, 2019. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

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Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin said her ministry would look at Japan’s model of designated smoking zones and hoped to come up with a standard operating procedure in six months.

This is a laudable move, but the government really should have come up with this a long time ago so that designated smoking areas are already provided for when the smoking ban in restaurants came into effect.

It is unreasonable to expect smokers to only smoke in private areas like their homes (though restaurants are also technically private spaces), since MOH would surely not want children to be exposed to secondhand smoke either.

I would also argue that it should not be illegal for restaurants to provide smoking facilities, which is weirdly punishable with one years' jail under the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004.

Businesses must be allowed to cater to their smoking customers (while protecting the safety of non-smoking patrons), simply because cigarettes are a legal product.

The government should not overly interfere with businesses, but should pursue behavioural change through a mixture of education and enforcement. 

The best solution, of course, is for smokers to just quit smoking. This is where MOH’s anti-smoking campaign fails to light up.

None of MOH’s communications about the new smoking ban have talked about the government’s stop smoking services.

MOH’s mQuit programme is not visible on the ministry website’s homepage. Since enforcing the smoking ban in restaurants, MOH has not issued any statements or created infographics about its stop smoking service that was launched in 2016, on which the ministry has reportedly partnered with more than 88 private health facilities. It is also unclear how much the mQuit programme costs.

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) provides free local stop smoking services. Its website also provides online support through an app, email, or text messages, as well as a helpline and online chats with an expert. The NHS even provides instant support on Facebook Messenger when cravings strike smokers who are trying to quit. These are some of the things MOH can consider doing, especially since most of us are on our smartphones all the time and Malaysia has a high internet penetration rate.

It is not enough to simply ban smoking in restaurants with the threat of jail. Smokers must be given designated areas in public to light up at, unless the government intends to eliminate smoking completely and forego the revenue it gets from tobacco taxes (estimated at a minimum RM4.1 billion last year).

But more importantly, MOH must provide (and publicise) services to help people quit smoking. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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