GEG: Criminalise suppliers, not smokers


The GEG is genius; but its current form enables severe abuse of power, and penalises small fries instead of the big fish.

WHEN I first heard about the generational endgame (GEG) law for smoking which makes it illegal for anyone born in 2007 onwards to smoke, my first thought was: I can’t believe I’ve never thought of such a genius idea.

One of the comments I’ve been hearing is that even smokers don’t want their kids to end up as smokers.

There’s very good reason for this – from a physical health perspective, everything about smoking is bad. There’s not a single good thing about it. It destroys your body, slowly and surely.

The GEG is genius because it doesn’t target current smokers. Waging that particular war would probably be too difficult. Instead, it just looks to ensure that future generations don’t become addicted to smoking.

The devil however, once again, is in the details.

On the one hand, in general, the GEG is a great effort that we should all support.

But as with all legislation, it is foolhardy to support it blindly, or to think of it as a binary, black and white, all or nothing situation.

The proposed legislation is a highly detailed set of laws and provisions, each of which needs to be scrutinised and assessed carefully, and amended where necessary.

This genius idea is not a blank check to which we can append any sort of provision willy nilly, simply because the core idea is brilliant.

Upon closer inspection, there are a great many red flags with regards to the legislation in its current form.

It appears we are in something of a race with New Zealand to see who will pass the first ever GEG legislation in the world. Of course, in this regard faster is not better, and we should not be rushing this just for some publicity stunt.

The good news is that New Zealand’s experience gives us a lot to compare with.

To my mind, the biggest red flag can be seen when we compare the core nature of this legislation and what exactly it outlaws.

New Zealand is outlawing selling, supplying, and delivering tobacco products.

Malaysia on the other hand, is outlawing smoking and possessing tobacco products.

It is impossible to overstate how big and important a difference this is.

This is like the situation with drugs, where we can go after all the drug users and drug mules we want, but the drug problem will never stop as long as the drug kingpins are operating with impunity.

The difference here when it comes to smoking is that New Zealand’s approach will deter rich people who would profit from smokers, while Malaysia’s approach seeks to punish those who smoke.

I have often said that big money is the biggest and most powerful centre of gravity in any issue.

Recently there was (rightly) an outpouring of grief and outrage when a man threw his own children off the MRR2 before jumping to his own death.

There is so much to unpack from this unspeakable tragedy. But the problems involving migration in this country cannot be solved until we go after the people who make millions or more in profit from human trafficking.

New Zealand’s approach gets closer to the heart of the problem by focusing on people who have sufficient profit incentives to sell cigarettes to many people. We can jail all the smokers we want, but if we do not focus on the suppliers, we will simply run out of jail space.

The world has a long history of picking on the weak, poor, and defenceless, while letting the rich and powerful – no matter how criminal they are – run free.

As the GEG bill is being reviewed by a 13-member Parliamentary Special Select Committee, we have a very important chance now not to repeat this toxic mistake, and amend the bill so that it is targetted primarily at those who would profit the most from selling illegal cigarettes.

When we look at the powers granted to enforcement officers, there are even more red flags that point to huge potential abuses of power.

Our current GEG law allows enforcement officers to: enter any premises, open baggages and packages, stop and search vehicles, access computers for information, and perhaps most importantly, search and seize without a warrant if the officer believes a delay will affect an investigation.

It sounds like as long as an officer “believes” (subjectively, and with no objective check and balance) that there is a cigarette-related crime, that officer has the power to subject you and your privacy to all manner of violations.

This would be deeply problematic even in a country where law enforcement has a very high standard and reputation. I shudder to think what kind of abuses such wide ranging powers will open the door to.

Let’s be clear and realistic. No amount of legislation will ever wipe out smoking completely – just as no amount of legislation has ever totally wiped out any kind of contraband or vice.

Smart legislation will however minimise smoking in this country, and prevent excessive profiteering. Poor legislation will lead to abuses of power like shakedowns, bullying, and harassment, all while letting the masterminds and contraband cigarette tycoons go free.

The GEG, in terms of its core concept, is an excellent idea to vastly improve the health of millions of Malaysians.

The GEG, in terms of exactly how the laws are conceived and worded, should not and cannot ever be allowed to facilitate rampant abuses of power and exploitation of the poor by the authorities.

We hope in these crucial few weeks, the members of parliament tasked with the duty will take this chance to ensure that we get the kind of law that Malaysia truly needs.

Nathaniel Tan is a strategic communications consultant. He can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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