Health experts decry govt's 'U-turn', food outlet operators have mixed reactions

KUALA LUMPUR: The Health Ministry's move to consider designated smoking areas at eateries could send the wrong message to the public, say health experts.

They believe that the government should instead be going all out to stamp out the smoking habit.

Former deputy health minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said the government entertaining the idea of expanding smoking zones in public spaces was "absurd".

"Instead of expanding smoking areas, restrictions on public smoking should be reinforced, and the public must be advocates for this.

"It is unreasonable for the government to increase the availability of spaces for smoking.

"The ministry should prioritise strengthening the enforcement of existing regulations, particularly given the widespread violations of restrictions observed post-Covid-19."

He said while implementing smoke-free zones could be beneficial, it must be done at the appropriate time and in suitable locations, including popular visitor hotspots.

"They can actually propose several spots in Kuala Lumpur as potential areas , following examples set by Tokyo and Singapore, where designated smoking areas are provided."

Professor Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh, a public health expert from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, labelled the move as a "U-turn" of the policy implemented in 2018.

She stressed the importance of the government's commitment in strengthening smoking bans, as outlined in the Tobacco Bill 2023, aimed at preventing the youth from taking up the habit.

"What concerns me is the potential for people to exploit this opportunity, including the younger generation.

"While the government will be seen as a 'hero', there's a risk of normalisation, as smoking may be perceived as 'legal' with more designated smoking places available.

"Smokers will also argue that this arrangement prevents them from 'disturbing' others, particularly after meals when nicotine addiction prompts many to
light up."

Restaurant associations had mixed reactions to the proposal.

Sahabat Tomyam Prihatin SeMalaysia Association, which has 5,000 members under its banner, said the idea should be viewed positively as it could help smokers become more disciplined and light up only in permitted areas.

Its adviser, Che Mamat Chemod, said countries such as Japan, Australia and Qatar, had designated smoking zones that were strictly observed by the public.

Che Mamat said eateries with large premises should also be allowed to have confined smoking rooms if they chose to accommodate smokers in the building.

However, Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association president Datuk Jawahar Ali Taib Khan dismissed the idea.

"Please don't flip-flop (on the ruling). Now, it is rare to see cigarette butts in public places and the areas are kept clean and tidy this way.

"If we allow (people to smoke in designated zones), a different situation will arise."

He said it was hard enough for restaurant operators to stop smokers from lighting up in restaurants.

He suggested the government instead review the maximum RM5,000 fine imposed on premises which fail to prohibit patrons from smoking there. By Nuradzimmah Daim and Hakim Mahari

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