Cigarettes: Charge ’em RM30 for twenty

The Consumers Association of Penang lauds the move mooted by Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai that with effect from January 2010, a minimum price will be fixed for a 20-sticks pack of cigarettes at RM6.20.

However, it is disappointing to note that the price fixed is so low that this will be a futile move if the government is really serious about addressing the fight against the growing smoking epidemic.

In a recent survey carried out by CAP, we found that the sale of ‘value brand’ cigarettes had increased. We found various brands – some of which were duty-free from Langkawi – being sold and easily available in outlets which sell cigarettes. Some of the brands were imported from Vietnam, Bangladesh and India. Most of these value brands do not even carry the health picture warning.

In term of pricing, the retailing price of premium brand cigarettes in Malaysia per pack of 20’s is RM9.30. However ‘value brand’ cigarettes are in the RM2.20 to RM2.50 range (per pack of 20 cigarettes) or approximately 73% cheaper.

The price of premium brand cigarettes in the United Kingdom is RM36.60, Ireland RM37.98, Singapore RM27.80, New Zealand RM27.20, Japan RM10.60 and Sri Lanka at RM10.90.

The magnitude the smoking epidemic in Malaysia cannot be downplayed. More than 50% of Malaysian adult males are smokers. About 50 Malaysian children below the age of 18 take up smoking every day.

Not to mention that approximately 10,000 Malaysians die every year from smoking-related ailments, making it one of the top killers in the country. It has been estimated that the Malaysian government spends at least about RM4.8 billion yearly to treat tobacco-related diseases.

Even more stringent measures are needed and the government must come out unequivocally on its stand against the tobacco menace. Section 16 (1) of the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004 clearly states, ‘The manufacturer shall pack the cigarettes in a packet containing not less than twenty sticks of cigarettes’.

Unfortunately, the sale of cigarettes in packs of 14’s still persists. We understand the ban on these small packs has been deferred till 2010 as a result of an ‘administrative order’. CAP calls for this order to be revoked and the sale of packs of 14’s halted without further delay.

The sale of loose cigarettes has also been banned for some time now by the Malaysian government. However, earlier this year, CAP did a random survey around Penang and found that eight out of fifteen shops were selling loose cigarettes despite the practice being banned.

Each stick was sold for sixty cents, allowing the shopkeepers to make a profit of RM3.80 for a pack of 20 cigarettes.

Our survey results could very well be an indication that the situation is widespread in Penang and throughout Malaysia. To make matters worse, some of the shops selling loose cigarettes are located very close by to schools thus facilitating children’s access to cigarettes. CAP calls on the government to act swiftly to stamp out these illegal sales.

In addition, the ban on smoking should be extended to cover all public places including restaurants, bars, parks and recreation areas. A licensing system that limits the number and location of outlets allowed to sell tobacco products should also be introduced.

Each premise that sells tobacco or tobacco products could be licensed and subjected to a yearly renewal. This renewal of licences could be blocked if any conditions of the licence are violated. These conditions could be clearly spelt out beforehand (for example, no sale to minors). Ideally cigarettes should only be sold in tobacco houses.

There also needs to be a very steep increase in taxes and duties on tobacco products resulting in price increases of cigarette packs to deterrent levels – an effective means for keeping the product out of the reach for most of the population. Any increase in smuggling activities should be tackled with effective enforcement.

CAP also urges the government to raise the minimum legal age for the purchase of tobacco products from 18 to 21 years, to match the legal voting age or the age of reason. The longer a youngster is kept from taking up the smoking habit, the higher the chances that he or she may never take up this habit at all.

CAP also calls for the cancellation of the duty-free status for tobacco products sold at our local airports and duty-free shops and to halt the sales of cigarettes on board Malaysian aircrafts. The duty-free status for sale of cigarettes in Langkawi should be immediately abolished.

There should also be an immediate ban on the display of cigarettes at payment counters at retail outlets and other prominent places. Instead, these products should be kept away from public view, for instance under the payment counters, and only brought out for sale on the specific request of a customer.

Other measures that can be taken are to ban the listing of tobacco companies on the stock exchange and stepping up the phasing-out of tobacco cultivation to eventually reach the stage when the growing of tobacco plants becomes illegal.

There should also be a prohibition on anti-smoking campaigns, education scholarships and other similar activities being carried out by tobacco companies themselves. If tobacco companies are serious about doing some good for the public, they should halt their tobacco business altogether.

It is obvious that not all the provisions to enhance control over tobacco products and smoking will be covered in the amendments to the regulations. As such, a Tobacco Control Act should quickly follow. We understand that the draft is already ready. CAP calls on the Health Ministry to set an early date for the release of this draft for public review and comment.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) emphasises the need for strong political commitment to develop and support tobacco control measures. It is hoped that the government will give its firm commitment to implement effective measures that will see a very significant reduction in the number of smokers in the country, and protection from exposure to tobacco smoke for all Malaysians.

CAP recommends that the price of a 20 pack cigarette be fixed at RM30. Ideally, tobacco should be banned completely. The country should be moving in this direction.


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