NST Leader: GEG's slow journey

SMOKING and vaping, the trendy fix for the younger generation, are addictive and expensive habits, lucrative to entrepreneurs and cool to impressionable adolescents. Ultimately, though, they are devastating and deadly to all users. Hardcore smokers have always been in denial about the habit's lethality: the unrepentant majority will puff till they die but not before stricken by its ugly side effects and chronic illnesses.

Malaysian smokers have disconcerting statistics: 20,000 out of 6.6 million smokers die annually, resulting in RM275.3 billion in lost productivity. Then there's the economic misallocation and loss of earnings: RM2.9 billion spent on heart disease and lung cancer treatments, slicing 0.6 per cent off the gross domestic product or 16.5 per cent of the national health expenditure.

You'd think a national emergency would have been declared based on these horrendous numbers, yet punitive legal action and measures are focused on drug abuse, statistically much less malevolent than smoking.

About 60,000 Malaysian teens in the 13 to 17 age group abuse drugs, and 106,000 tried it at least once in their lifetime. As opposed to smoking's killer statistics, deaths from drug abuse totalled only 322 in 2020, but recreational users face state-imposed sanctions of drug rehabilitation, police supervision and jail time if caught using and possessing. It boggles the mind but smoking, with its more pernicious consequences, is nonchalantly accepted as a "cultural" blight, one that even a fatwa can't deter.

On hindsight, smoking should have been framed similar to the War on Drugs, but even today, many governments are coy and indecisive in liquidating the habit. This includes our Health Ministry, which prefers to dawdle over an MySejahtera survey to "gather public feedback" on the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023, dubbed the Generational End Game (GEG) bill.

The bill, designed to prohibit the generation born after Jan 1, 2007, from using smoking products, including cigarettes and vape, stalled prior to a Dewan Rakyat tabling last month to entertain "soft landing" provisos. Face it: Big Tobacco and now Big Vape are simply too big to fail, thus catching the government in a twisted dilemma.

Big Tobacco's domestic revenue is almost RM6 billion this year, while the burgeoning vaping industry struck a 53 per cent sales spike to reach RM3.5 billion. Obviously, commercial implications are debasing documented medical ramifications, evident from tobacco's absence in sin tax since 2014 and the disquieting legalisation of liquid nicotine.

The government is unable to retard tobacco lobbyists, and that includes our lawmakers, armed with "studies" on how a chunk of the economy will spiral downwards if the GEG is passed. The spectre of vape entrepreneurs and workers going out of business and work may trigger a political backlash.

Given such harsh pragmatism, the working option to counteract puffing in youngsters is to execute a good, old-fashioned public anti-smoking campaign — saving one teenager at a time from future medical consequences.

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