Huff and puff over dearer smokes

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 19 Sep 2004


SOME feel that lighting up a cigarette makes them look macho while others believe their smiles will be more manis (attractive) if they smoke. 

The above observation came from a kaki rokok (heavy smoker), MP Mohd Said Yusof (BN – Jasin), who was trying to explain to members in the Dewan that people smoked for various reasons. 

It all boiled down to personal choice and gratification, he stressed. 

The fact that smoking and cigarettes became a popular topic in the Dewan last week, both during question time and debate on the Bills, was not surprising, given that taxes on tobacco products increased by nearly 40% under the recently announced Budget 2005. 

Like all smokers out there, some MPs who thrive on a staple diet of cigarettes were feeling the pinch as cigarette prices had gone up from RM5.40 per pack of 20 sticks to RM6.50 following the tax increase. 

Sympathy for smokers was scarce – when Datuk Mohamed Aziz (BN – Sri Gading) made a plea on behalf of the six million smokers in the country on Thursday, he was bombarded by many other health-conscious MPs in the Dewan. 

Tolonglah, tolonglah (Please, please). I appeal to the Government to consider not raising the tax on cigarettes in the next few years. 

“This is really taxing, especially for us politicians. Sometimes, we buy cigarettes not only for our own consumption because we have to belanja (spend) others when visiting our constituencies and one pack of cigarettes will be gone in no time,” Mohamed said. 

Amid boos and jeers as well as snide remarks like “Dia lah mangsa (He is the victim)”, Mohamed pressed on to argue that smoking was not the number one killer. 

“I had a friend who jogged 30 minutes every morning in downtown Johor Baru. He never touched a cigarette but he died two years ago. The exhaust fumes had done him in rather than cigarettes! 

“This shows that walking in the streets for half an hour is more dahsyat (hazardous) than smoking,” he said, drawing laughter but not gaining support. 

Throughout the week's seating, many MPs had praised the Government for increasing taxes on tobacco, saying it was a move towards promoting a healthier lifestyle and should be pursued further in the future. 

Opposition MP Lim Hock Seng (DAP – Bagan) even told the Barisan MPs to lead by example and proposed that smoking be banned in all corners of Parliament House – at present, the air-conditioned cafeteria and MPs lounge are still smoking areas. 

At this juncture, the issues surrounding the “political economy of tobacco” were introduced, with Mohd Said pointing out that many constituents in opposition-held areas depended on tobacco production for a living. 

The reality is that while the Government has allocated RM17mil this year for an aggressive anti-smoking campaign under the “Tak Nak” (Don't Want) tagline, a total success for the campaign could affect the livelihood of some 180,000 people. 

PAS-held Kelantan is one of the major tobacco production centres, with a 60,000-strong workforce involved. Tobacco was introduced as a commercial crop in rural areas as a means to improving the income level of farmers. 

To date, 14,000ha of land nationwide is planted with the crop and the yields benefit not only the growers, but also workers in the processing factories, distributors and retailers.  

According to a report distributed in the Dewan, the tobacco industry is worth RM4.5bil in 2002 and contributed 1% to the country's gross domestic product. 

One MP also raised the question of how tax hikes would impact tobacco production and the industry's regional competitive edge in the face of the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta). 

However, concerns over health issues appeared to outweigh economic considerations with some MPs lobbying to have tobacco declared “haram (forbidden)”. 

Health Ministry parliamentary secretary Lee Kah Choon dodged the haram issue by answering: “It is not a suitable solution because no country in this world outlaws tobacco. We can reduce the number of smokers through other means.” 

Apart from this “smoky” business, the Dewan was also engulfed in debates on various issues related to Budget 2005, with education and the restructuring of the tax system receiving lots of attention. 

An election mood had also crept into the House in the run-up to the Umno general assembly – MPs usually address their colleagues in Dewan by referring to the constituency they represent but in the spirit of the Umno polls, a person's “contender status” also became part of his title. 

For example, Mohamed was addressed as “Yang Berhormat Sri Gading, Calon Pengerusi Tetap Umno Malaysia” (Sri Gading MP, Candidate for the Umno Permanent Chairmanship) when a question was directed at him. 

Those contesting also joked about having to be nice to fellow MPs from the same party during debate sessions as a way to fish for votes. 

Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang (DAP – Ipoh Timur), on the other hand, took the opportunity to mount an attack on money politics in Umno. 

The Dewan sits again tomorrow.  

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