COMMENTARY, JULY 28 — Consider this future scenario: one person born on December 31, 2006 and another person born after January 1, 2007 both light up a cigarette or vape in a designated smoking area.
A policeman walks up to them and asks them for their identity card. The person born after January 1, 2007 is immediately issued a summons for a fine which could potentially be up to RM5,000. What about the person born on December 31, 2006? Well, he or she can continue smoking, or vaping without any legal consequence.
That is effectively what the Malaysian government’s Tobacco and Smoking Bill 2022 will herald.
Before I continue examining this new law, let me make a few declarations. I am a smoker, or at least I used to be. For the last few years, I use a device called Iqos which heats tobacco. It’s a bit like vape but it’s not. You can Google it yourself. I am not here to promote it.
Neither am I here to promote smoking. Look, it’s annoying at the very least if you are a non-smoker and the person in front of you smokes. Ditto the health issues. Not here to debate them either.
In the many decades in which I have smoked, the world has gone from smoking being allowed everywhere including offices and cinemas to smoking basically being not allowed nearly everywhere. And I have for the most part followed whatever law is in effect.
But what I find annoying about this new law is it creates unequal treatment under the law. More legally qualified persons than me surely know enough about the Federal Constitution to pipe in if they wish.
I do know that Article 8 (1) of our Federal Constitution states that “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law” except where expressly authorised by the Constitution (Most of the exceptions are to do with affirmative action and religious administration).
Back to the scenario I offered above then. Both persons are of the age of majority. Are they treated equally in law? The answer has to be no. Because it’s legal for one person but not for the other to smoke. Is it constitutional to treat them differently? Well, I don’t know.
Many advocates of the generational end game for smoking law point out that this is a contradiction they are willing to support because it’s for the sake of children. Well, it is already illegal to sell cigarettes or tobacco products to children.
Some supporters of the new law point out the fact that many teenagers are already vaping and smoking. Yes, that is true. And it’s not a good thing. I agree. But there is already a law in place. How would another piece of legislation which is primarily targeted at adults as well make it less likely for teenagers to smoke or vape?
This seems like a nice segue for me to talk about human behaviour, particularly that of younger people.
Teenagers in particular are rebellious. And curious. Think back to your own youth and you will likely agree with me.
It’s pure speculation at this point, but I am just asking this question: will this new law make it even more enticing for young people to smoke? You know, out of rebellion or wanting to look dangerous or something like that? Or because older people are allowed to do something you are not allowed to do? I don’t know. It’s possible to say the least that this is an unintended consequence the authorities should think about.
And what is the solution to these issues as proposed by the new law? The answer is fines of up to RM5,000.
If there is one thing I have learned about harsh punishments, it leads to even more criminal acts. Like corruption. Like criminal syndicates profiting from absurd laws. I won’t go into it too much. Again, you can Google things like the Prohibition era in the United States and see how that worked out.
If you are still with me so far, let me just say that as someone who was a cigarette smoker and is now using a tobacco device because I am a weak person, this law will have zero effect on me. After all, I was born way, way before 2007.
It just grates when a law discriminates. And personally, I hate it when governments tell me what I should or should not do.
I grudgingly accept it when things are for the greater good. But in this case, I am not convinced it will be.
But as I have noticed, anyone who speaks up against this law is being labelled a shill of big tobacco. So I expect this law will be passed in Parliament. Overzealous name calling of any opponent of the law and of anyone who has a different opinion is unhealthy for democracy, to say the least, but my social media feed suggests to me that this opinion of mine about the new law will potentially be subject to some vitriol as well.
We will soon see if my absurd predictions will come true. If they don’t, then great. But I worry we are on a slippery slope if such a law is passed and enforced. It certainly sets a precedent for a future government to regulate even more of our behaviour.
You know what they say about the road to hell, right? Fingers crossed; we are not on that road.