Snags in Generation End Game

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Over the past weeks, there has been much lobbying by certain civil society groups for Malaysian MPs to vote for the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill that will be tabled in the Parliament.

The part of the Bill which has caused the most stir is the ban it will mandate against the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to those born from the year 2005 onwards. This ban, in effect, is targeted against Malaysia’s so-called “Generation Z”, young adults who are turning 18 years old next year.

Low Boon Tat/The Star

There, however, are some ambiguities surrounding the legislation. Both the Health Ministry and its Minister have not really outlined how the ban is to be effectively enforced. For instance: will minors be fined for buying cigarettes?

How will the government stop the sale of cigarettes or more commonly, vapes on e-commerce sites to the Gen-Z? Or to halt their promotion via social media?

Will people born after 2005 who bring in cigarettes and vapes from abroad be stripped of them upon entry to Malaysia? How will restaurants and shisha (or hookah) lounges be regulated to ensure they do not serve such products to the Gen-Z?

In fact, I believe that the Health Ministry does not understand the Gen-Z. It is true many of them vape vigorously, but anecdotally, it is also true that the so-called “smokers” among them have ironically never touched a cigarette in their lives and in fact stay away from them.

For whatever reason, Gen-Zs find vaping more attractive compared to smoking. It is true the liquids and juices are sweeter or more attractively packaged and marketed—that this product specifically targets the young. But it could also be that the youth implicitly realise that vaping is a less harmful activity than smoking—although this fact seems to elude their government.

At any rate, outright banning cigarettes and tobacco products will only make them more appealing to Gen-Z’s—the so-called “forbidden fruit” effect.

We have already seen how young cigarette smokers in Malaysia are already getting access to them despite the authorities’ best efforts. The danger is that the “Generational End Game” will simply drive young smokers underground.

The vapers will then ironically be in peril given that they may then be exposed to illegal or poorly-made devices or liquids, which are almost certainly extremely dangerous.

I am not advocating giving up on efforts to combat youth smoking. Rather, outright bans and other punitive measures are counterproductive. People sometimes forget that they were young once.

A more useful modus operandi would be for the Government to regulate vaping as well as better combat unlicensed and unregulated vape stores both physically and virtually throughout the country.

It ought to continue to work with manufacturers to reduce the level of nicotine in cigarettes and vape liquids as well as to prohibit social influencers from promoting vapes, cigarettes and any form of tobacco products on social media such as TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.

It’s instructive that Norway’s smoking prevalence among young smokers (aged 16-24) dipped from 12% in 2010 to 1% in 2020, although the country did not implement any form of tobacco ban.

The Norwegian Health Ministry found that educational levels were the number one explanatory factor for smoking prevalence. The lower one’s education, the higher the chance one becomes a smoker. At the same time, the use of smokeless tobacco among the younger population has been strongly increasing there.

At the end of the day, smoking is driven by social factors. If the friends, parents, families, and communities of young people cannot steer them away from smoking, what makes us think the government can?

The “Generation End Game” must be rethought. The government should not seek populist solutions but instead focus on the real roots of the various problems facing our nation.

The views expressed here are strictly those of Subramaniam Munusamy from Klang.