By Muhaimin Merican
Starting on the 1st of January 2019, smokers are no longer allowed to smoke in public eateries such as restaurants, hawker stalls and coffee shops. The ban encompasses all kinds of nicotine based smoking products including cigarettes, vapes as well as shisha. The ban adds public eateries to a long list of places where smoking is now prohibited.
Back in October, the Health Ministry announced the ban will begin taking place starting in January 2019 in an effort to curb smoking in public areas. Those caught smoking in prohibited areas would be fined up to RM10,000 or face two years jail while eateries found to have allowed customers to light up would be fined up to RM2,500.
Malaysia’s Health Minister, Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad, has since claimed that the enforcement of the ban has helped to increase the revenue of restaurants due to families bringing their children out to eat at local eateries. He added that over 3,000 premises and restaurant owners had been briefed on the standard operating procedures and methods of enforcing the ban, during townhall meetings with the ministry.
The Health Ministry has since tasked thousands of officers nationwide to enforce the ban, but gave a six-month grace period before offenders are fined. According to the Deputy Health Minister, Dr Lee Boon Chye, although the implementation of the smoking ban will be carried out beginning this month and the ministry has the authority to penalise the offenders, the first six months will act as a grace period which will focus on warning and education.
However, since its implementation earlier this month, the ban has sparked a lively debate on whether or not the ban is fair towards every Malaysian.
Public sentiments toward the ban have since been divided. Many have applauded the health Ministry for the leap towards a healthier way of life. However, there are also members of the public questioning the purpose of the ban and if the implementation was not properly handled.
Many restaurant owners have since complained about how the ban has affected their business. Malaysia Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association president Datuk Ho Su Mong said around 30% of their customers are smokers and are no longer showing up since the ban came into place. He also mentioned that members have complained that their shops customers have dwindled and been less busy since the implementation of the smoking ban on the 1st of January 2019. He also said that workers also had to deal with customers who refused to put out their cigarettes despite being told to do so.
Agreeing with Ho, Restoran Ipoh Raya DR owner Zainal Abidin Mirrah Maidin felt that the government had failed to take into consideration the consequences restaurant operators would face before implementing the ban. He applauded the government’s initiative to help non-smokers but had failed to take smokers who wished to continue smoking into consideration.
Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association president Muthusamy Thirumeni and Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association president Ayoob Khan Muhamad Yakub had previously asked the government to allow restaurant owners to provide smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants. They had brought up designated smoking areas because it was culture among Malaysians to have a puff of smoke during their teh tarik sessions. However, Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye said they could not consider the proposal as public health was still their main priority.
Another major problem the Health Ministry is facing regarding the ban is that they are being taken to court over the issue by a Smoker’s Rights Group calling themselves Pertahankan Hak Perokok (PHP). The group has initiated a judicial review on it in order to get the ministry to respond to its engagement call. The chairman, Mohd Hanizam said that the only thing the group wants is for smokers to be allowed to smoke in the open-air areas within eateries like before. They also want to discuss possible alternatives like assigning designated smoking areas which have been done in other countries.
Prominent lawyer, Dato Hasnal Rezua Merican, believes that the lawsuit was a rather farfetched move. He also mentioned the complexity of the lawsuit due to the fact that the Malaysian Ministry of Health did not prohibit the act of smoking but merely prohibited the act of smoking in public eateries. Hasnal also mentioned that the Ministry of Health is only following the act which was passed in Parliament and that the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004 had recently been amended in 2018, gazetted on December 24 last year, and came into force on January 1, to include the smoking distance at restaurants. He added since there was no similar case to this in the past, we would have to watch how it all unfolds in court.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the smoking ban has caused a split among Malaysians from all walks of life from politicians to coffee shop owners to lawyers. While we can all agree that the smoking ban was a step in the right direction we cannot deny that it has left us all wondering whether the implementation of the ban has been done properly or if it was too rushed. We nevertheless cannot overlook that, whether be it protecting the public health or fighting for the rights of smokers or establishing designated smoking areas to preserve “teh tarik culture”, everyone is just doing what they believe is best for the nation and its people.