MARCH 20 — Less than a month after Singapore’s announcement that cigarettes in the city-state are to be sold only in standardised plain packaging, it’s reported that Putrajaya is considering the same measures. And since Thailand also passed a bill late last year, it seems the race is on to become the first market in Asia to roll out the controversial policy.

The timing of these announcements, and the apparent rush to pass legislation, is curious given that Australia, the first country to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes in 2012, and the only one where long term data exists on policy effectiveness, is currently reviewing its approach to tobacco control, which health experts and politicians admit is not working.

The government’s ‘quit or die’ approach, which for more than six years has consisted of plain packaging, high tax and a ban on e-cigarettes, has failed demonstrably, with more Australians smoking now than in 2013.

Since Australia introduced plain packaging, its failure to deter smokers has been under-reported; in fact, it has been promoted as a legitimate measure to discourage smoking. Now, policy-makers around the world should be watching with interest as this new parliamentary consultation comes to a close in the wake of an investigation by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, which found that plain packaging has failed to reduce smoking.

The evidence is clear: plain packaging is not having the desired effect. The number of smokers in Australia has actually increased since 2013 (one year after the plain packaging was introduced). It’s also the first time in decades that there hasn’t been a drop in smoking rates. And that’s according to the governments’s own statistics.

In spite of this, other countries around the world — including in South East Asia — risk making the same mistake, as politicians attempt to entice voters with this hardline, but evidently ineffective, policy on tobacco and other ‘unhealthy’ goods. Now Ireland is looking to introduce massive brand restrictions and health warnings on alcohol, while health activists are calling for similar treatment of confectionary and fast-food. In Chile, they have already removed cartoon characters from cereal packs in an effort to combat obesity.

What we know is that education alongside credible alternatives to smoking is the answer, not censorship. Governments must make it easier for smokers to quit, not harder. And yet, in Malaysia, as in Australia, it is still a criminal offense to buy, possess, or use e-cigarettes containing nicotine. Perpetrators face hefty fines and even prison time.

Commitment to these punitive measures directly contradicts the UK Royal College of Physicians advice that vaping has “huge potential to prevent death and disability from tobacco use”. Not only that, but evidence shows it is helping to lower smoking rates. Public Health England reports that e-cigarettes, or vapes, can help at least 20,000 smokers to quit every year.

Instead of joining the UK, USA and Canada in permitting and encouraging vaping, Malaysia is, in effect, abandoning the country’s five million smokers to die or become criminals, when they should be supporting their efforts to quit.

Unlike cigarettes, vapes don’t release tar and carcinogens through combustible tobacco. They turn nicotine solution into vapour, allowing smokers to satiate cravings, while mimicking the action of smoking and without exposure to dangerous toxins. As the debate continues in Australia, a report by the McKell Institute, an independent, not-for-profit policy body, has now found that, “legalising vaping has enormous potential to improve public health, particularly for disadvantaged smokers who are disproportionately affected by smoking-related diseases”.

Not only is a hardline, censorship approach shortsighted, it’s also potentially dangerous. There is evidence to suggest that tougher laws on smoking could encourage illicit trade and even the funding of terrorist organisations. KPMG‘s findings show that illicit tobacco consumption in Australia has already grown from 11.5per cent to 14per cent since plain packaging took effect; without branding, there’s very little difference to the consumer between store-bought taxed tobacco and tax-free illicit tobacco.

In Malaysia, where 6 out of every 10 cigarettes smoked are illegal (making it the #1 market for illegal tobacco worldwide), do we really want to make this worse? The Malaysian government’s recent efforts to combat illicit cigarette trade are commendable, with the introduction of a fine for retailers selling contraband brands. However, plain packaging, which is also currently being assessed, is likely to undo this good work based on the evidence coming out of Australia.

Plain packaging has negative consequences that extend far beyond the product consumers themselves. Plain packaging destroys brand power, which makes it harder to survive for small, local businesses that cannot afford to compete on price. It’s not inconceivable that the measure could be applied to sugary drinks and fast-food in the future. How would the bubble tea start-up in Malaysia get a foodhold domestically or overseas, with no branding permitted? This would have a ruinous effect on independent business, including job losses.

Policy-makers in South East Asia should draw their own conclusions on the Australian experiment based on evaluating all available data. Australia’s policy review is a positive step in the right direction. Rather than “nanny state”, punitive interventions, it’s time to start supporting smokers to quit, through evidence-based policy and the legalisation of vaping as a safer alternative to smoking.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.