The recent proposal by the Health Ministry to gazette all eateries as smoke-free places was met with heated discussion in the media and online.
By the end of 2018, smokers will no longer be allowed to light up at any indoor or outdoor eateries.
Smokers and sympathisers may profess their objections to this proposal, but the fact is, smoke-free public places, including at all eateries, would benefit all, including smokers themselves.
In this day and age, nobody is denying that smoking is harmful.
We don’t have to look at the abundance of epidemiological and scientific evidence to win this argument, just look at the many friends and family that we know have suffered the consequences of active and passive smoking.
Smokers themselves are not in denial, not with constant reminders on cigarette packets.
The 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey revealed that nearly a third of smokers had considered quitting as a result of looking at cigarette pack pictorial health warnings and half of smokers had attempted quitting at least once in the past 12 months.
Many can’t quit because of the powerful nicotine addiction that compels them to keep lighting up.
The saddest fact is that the Tobacco Atlas by the American Cancer Society estimated that tobacco use kills 27,000 Malaysians annually – a rate that translates to one smoking-related death every 20 minutes!
The list of public places with a smoking ban in Malaysia is expanding over the years, albeit at a gentle pace that cannot keep up with the harmful consequences from exposure to cigarette smoke.
The trend of increasing smoke-free public places is seen across the globe, probably facilitated by the orchestrated efforts of the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention of Tobacco Control (FCTC).
Despite the main agenda of Article 8 FCTC, which is to protect the public from exposure to cigarette smoke, a smoking ban benefits smokers in many ways.
Having established the fact that the majority of smokers want to quit, a smoking ban in public places actually favours them.
Studies have shown that a smoking ban reduces the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Imagine if you are allowed to smoke at your desk at work, how many cigarettes would you have smoked in an auto-pilot mode?
However, with regulations in place, smokers not only cut down the number of cigarettes smoked, but they are also more mindful of their smoking habit.
A smoking ban at the workplace helps smokers to control their smoking, not to mention the financial benefit of smoking less.
Some of us may remember a time when passengers were allowed to smoke in flights. Nowadays, smokers are able to withstand long flights without even lighting up from the moment they step into the airport.
Being mindful of smoking is exactly the same reason why Muslim smokers are able to last the whole day without smoking during Ramadhan. Even though nicotine addiction is powerful, we are able to refrain from smoking if we need to.
One of the methods of quitting is gradually reducing your cigarettes before commencing complete abstinence.
Physicians often advise patients to start with smoking sessions that are the easiest to break away from, such as mindless smoking during working, driving or watching TV.
This will gradually move to the harder smoking sessions to remove, such as post-mealtimes, times of stress and first thing in the morning.
For many smokers, eating is associated with smoking, up to a point that it has become so natural in their smoking behaviour.
Eating has become the trigger to smoke. I remember talking to a patient who said he avoided going to certain restaurants as being or eating there entices him to break his abstinence.
Those who have tried to quit will remember how hard it can be being with friends who smoke at eateries.
The Health Ministry’s move to ban smoking in all eateries will help millions of smokers to dissociate smoking and meal times.
Imagine how this regulation will assist the more than half of five million smokers who had attempted to quit smoking.
Some will argue that a smoking ban at all eateries is bad for business.
They only have to look at evidence from Britain, Australia, America and South Korea. Not only will business be as usual, but some studies have also demonstrated that smoking bans are good for profits.
Smokers will still come and eat, but they may smoke at a different place and time.
Nearly 80% of Malaysians are non-smokers, so the math is in favour of businesses. How many times have we heard, “Let’s not eat here because there is too much smoke in the air”?
The smoking ban at all eateries will also strengthen the message that smoking is harmful for health.
We all wish for future smoke-free Malaysian generations. Nobody, not even smokers, want their children to take up smoking.
Nevertheless, our children are getting mixed messages when schools teach them that smoking is bad, yet when they go to public places, smoking is the norm for many adults.
Parents can use these smoking ban regulations to emphasise that what they learn in school is indeed true.
Kudos to the Health Ministry which has a huge responsibility to improve the nation’s health for the sake of national development.
Sometimes, tough and unpopular decisions have to be made. In the spirit of Sayangi Malaysiaku, the proposed regulation of a smoking ban at all eateries will benefit all the rakyat.
It may take a while for behavioural and cultural changes, but we have to start some time, and as they say, the best time is now.
Dr Nizam Baharom is a public health physician at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.
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