Tackle cheap illicit cigarettes, not ban smoking at eateries, govt told

Ida Lim
Coffeeshop owners protest against the smoking ban at open-air eateries, in Kuala Lumpur November 12, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 12 — The government should combat the sale of illicit cigarettes if it wants to reduce the number of smokers in Malaysia, instead of imposing an impractical ban on smoking in open-air eateries, local coffeeshops and restaurants said today.

Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association (MSCSPGA) president, Datuk Ho Su Mong, said the actual cause of the rise in smoking in Malaysia was due to the sale of illegal cigarettes, which he said currently comprises up to 60 per cent of total cigarette sales in the country.

Ho noted the government already bans smoking in a number of places, but questioned the effectiveness of the enforcement of the ban.

“From experience, instead of reducing the number of smokers, the number of smokers increased and the sale of cigarettes went up.

“I feel more attention should be placed on the illicit side to curb illicit cigarettes, that’s the cause of the increase in the number of smokers in the country,” he said at a press conference here.

Citing an anecdote, Ho said illegal cigarette packs were also sold for as cheap as RM3 per pack.

T. Muthusamy, president of the Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association (Primas), said the Health Ministry should focus on tackling illegal cigarettes or the illegal sale of loose sticks of cigarettes, as well as increase awareness programmes including among the youths.

“Give more attention to illicit cigarettes, which is encouraging more smokers. Our objective is to reduce smoking, but here, cheap, illicit cigarettes are encouraging more smokers, so that must be given priority. If that is done, the number of smokers will be reduced automatically.

“These should be prioritised. Putting legislation on restaurant premises, not allowing them to smoke in non air-conditioned restaurants should be the last priority,” Mutusamy said at the same press conference.

Muthusamy, who said restaurant operators supported the government’s move to have Malaysia become a non-smoking country, urged the government to look into the welfare of small businesses, which he said would be affected by the blanket smoking ban.

He also advocated letting public smoking “die a natural death” as consumer awareness grows and by letting non-smoking customers decide to not patronise restaurants where smoking is allowed, instead of imposing regulations.

The press conference today was jointly held by MSCSPGA, Primas and the Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association (Presma), who collectively represent around 30,000 eatery owners and operators.

Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association president, T. Muthusamy speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur November 12, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Smoking zone as alternative

Ho pointed out that he was himself a non-smoker and disliked second-hand smoke, but stressed that the rights of smokers should also be taken into account.

“We do not encourage our customers to smoke and we don’t ask them to smoke. But their rights should also be protected,” he said, mooting a smoking zone in the form of a transparent cubicle or a select few tables in an open space within an eatery.

He said the cubicles would be able to keep smokers and non-smokers apart, while also respecting the rights of both.

Ho said having transparent smoking cubicles may even affect smokers psychologically and spur them to give up smoking instead of entering the dedicated space to smoke.

Ho said the government could even build smoking rooms if it had the funds to do so, highlighting that smoking zones were implemented in advanced countries such as Japan and neighbouring Singapore.

“Most importantly, what the government should do is find a solution, how to guide smokers to stop smoking,” he said, noting that such a method would be more practical to cut down the healthcare cost burden on the government by reducing the number of smokers.

Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association president Datuk Ho Su Mong speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur November 12, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Consultation

Ho said the restaurant and coffeeshop operators would prefer to have discussions with the Health Ministry to find a realistic “win-win solution” for both the government and small businesses, instead of having “high-handed” measures being imposed without consultation.

“We have sent our request, hoping the Health Ministry will give us a smoking zone,” he said.

Ho said eatery owners had met with Deputy Health Minister Lee Boon Chye on October 25 after sending a letter previously, and hoped to be called in for further discussions.

Muthusamy later told reporters that restaurant operators were told at the meeting that they would not be fined if customers lit up despite the ban, and were also told that smoking 10 feet away from eateries would be allowed.

But restaurant operators disagreed with the proposed 10-feet allowance, with Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association (Presma) president Ayoob Khan saying in a joint statement that smoking 10 feet away from an eatery would mean smoking on the road.

About 30 to 50 coffeeshop operators later held a demonstration outside MSCSPGA headquarters, protesting against a total smoking ban in eateries and calling for a smoking zone in their outlets.

Placards that were spotted included “Government should focus on health education, not through force” and “Our shop, our investment, our right to choose for our business”.

The government plans to impose a smoking ban at all eateries, including open-air outlets, from January 1.

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