PETALING JAYA: A 10-year-old in uniform takes a drag on his cigarette and the nicotine hits. For every five boys, there is one just like him, reveals the country’s first-of-its-kind study by the Health Ministry.
The habit is easy to feed, especially when cigarettes are blatantly being sold to students with little or no enforcement against the irresponsible sellers.
More than half of the students who participated in the recent survey got their smokes easily from supermarkets, grocery stores and roadside stalls.
Tobacco and E-cigarette Survey among Malaysian Adolescents 2016 (Tecma) showed that four in five knew that smoking by anyone below age 18 was an offence under the law. More than half said they weren’t prevented from buying tobacco products.
“More than one in five male adolescents are smoking cigarettes. And 36.8% of them smoked two to five sticks per day.”
Published on the Health Ministry’s Institute for Public Health portal on Feb 21, Tecma is the first national study to get the latest information on tobacco, e-cigarette and vape usage among Malaysians aged between 10 and 19.
A total of 14,833 students from 138 schools in 15 states were surveyed.
Although nearly all knew that smoking was harmful to their health, it is alarming to note that one in 10 non-smoking adolescents was likely to start smoking in future.
The highest exposure to second-hand smoke was at highway Rest and Relax stops, inside public transport vehicles as well as in parents and guardian’s cars, the survey found.
On e-cigs and vape, the survey found that most students have heard about it, and one in five has tried it.
“The technology is rapidly changing while the objective remains the same – to develop nicotine addiction among users.”
Tecma recommended that the devices be made illegal for underage users whether or not they contain nicotine, adding that intervention should be a priority because it was easier to treat a new addiction rather than an adult chain smoker.
Last month, the Health Ministry’s Control of Tobacco Product (Amendment) Regulations 2017 came into force.
Under the new regulations, smoking is no longer allowed at camp sites, game courts, playgrounds, and public parks – places popular with youngsters.
Deputy Education Minister Datuk Chong Sin Woon said a ministry meeting would be held to discuss the survey.
Describing the results as shocking, he said something must be done to address the issue of student smokers.
“We must look into intensifying anti-smoking campaigns in schools. Meanwhile, the relevant authorities must step up their enforcement efforts. We cannot allow the sale of cigarettes to students,” he said.
Universiti Malaya nicotine addiction specialist Assoc Prof Dr Amer Siddiq Amer Nordin is worried too.
“It’s no secret. Even with our new legislation of increasing smoke-free areas, the main issue is with enforcement,” he said, adding that more officers were needed.
The addiction, he said, was a chronic disease.
After only three cigarettes, brain receptors become saturated. A developing brain changes as a result of early experimentation. Subsequent addiction is lifelong, he warned.
Calling for strict regulation and enforcement, he’s also concerned about the possibility of e-cig and vape users moving on to cigarettes.
Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) education officer N.V. Subbarow said exposure to smoking starts at pre-school with cigarette-shaped candy.
These, he said, must be banned.
He said loose cigarettes were openly sold near schools in George Town.
“Authorities, like the local council, can take action but no one’s bothered,” he said.
“Enforcement is poor. Confiscation and fines don’t work. We should have a deterrent punishment, only then will people be scared.”
The Health Ministry’s anti-smoking campaign must be as aggressive as the national anti-dadah initiative, especially in schools, Subbarow added.