MANY of us who are members of tobacco control groups in Malaysia are holding our hopeful breaths after the deputy health minister announced that his ministry would push to gazette all open-air restaurants as no-smoking areas, “No smoking at open-air eateries” (The Star, Sept 7).
But why are we not having a full blown celebration, one may ask? After all, tobacco control groups have been urging the government to do this for years.
This is because if you read between the lines, it seems the Health Ministry may be worried about the blowback from implementing this move. Over the past few days since the announcement was made, some quarters have been criticising this move, including members of the media themselves. One tweeted, “Banning smoking at open-air eateries is such a fascist move. If people want smoke-free environments, eat inside. Otherwise, where can smokers go? Open spaces belong to smokers too.”
There are four main arguments making their rounds both on mainstream and social media on why open-air restaurants should not be designated non-smoking zones.
The first and main one is that smokers should also have a right to smoke and that non-smokers are depriving them of this right. The fact that people continue to use this argument shows the lack of success in our efforts to “de-normalise” smoking among Malaysians. We continue to associate smoking with freedom, but what many people fail to realise is that no one has called for an open ban on tobacco.
It is important to understand than gazetting open-air restaurants as no-smoking zones doesn’t mean that an individual is being deprived of his or her right to smoke.
It just means he or she is being regulated on where he/she can and cannot smoke. This is an important distinction to make.
More importantly, consider the rights of the close to 80% of the Malaysian population who do not smoke. They have a right to not be exposed to tobacco smoke. They have a right to not get an increased risk of having cancer and all the other diseases caused by exposure to tobacco through no fault of their own.
I believe, and I am sure those of us in our right minds do too, that the right to health is the most important of all rights.
Consider these numbers: 209,000 people voted yes to make open-air eateries non-smoking zones versus 19,000 who voted no on the Health Ministry’s online poll on Facebook recently.
The second argument against the gazetting of open-air restaurants as non-smoking zones is that the government has no business regulating smoking. The argument is that if smoking is regulated, so should eating junk food and fast food and other practices detrimental to health. People should be allowed to make their own choices, and if that choice is a bad one, too bad for them.
While there may be some truth in this argument, the fact is that eating fast food and junk food and many other poor health choices people make would affect themselves only. For example, becoming obese from eating too much unhealthy food would be that individual’s problem only.
Smoking, on the other hand, affects everyone exposed to it. Research shows that second-hand smoke causes close to 900,000 deaths a year globally (and this is without even considering the impact of third-hand smoke).
This is extremely unfair to those affected because it is not a choice they made. So, similar to regulations to prevent road accidents, laws on smoking are about protecting non-smokers from exposure to risks over which they have no control. If a government has no business in introducing regulations to protect its people, then why do we even need a government?
The third argument is about “social enforcement”, for example telling the smoker next to you to stop smoking or restaurants enforcing their own no-smoking policy instead of the government telling them to do so. More than one person has told me that if I don’t like someone smoking next to me in a public place, I should just tell that person to stop.
I have tried and continue to do this almost every day. However, I have been shouted at, threatened with physical abuse and, on two occasions, friends and family members sitting with me have been threatened as well.
The truth is, without a legal framework that de-normalises smoking in open spaces, there is little that social enforcement can achieve.
Finally, those of us who do not smoke are told to go elsewhere, like “Go sit down in air conditioned restaurants. You cannot smoke there, right?”
This is an elitist view, unfortunately. Those who can afford to eat all the time in air-conditioned restaurants which are smoke-free are indeed lucky. But I consider myself to be a middle-class Malaysian and most days, I eat two meals in an open-air restaurant or mamak outlet.
This holds true for many Malaysians as well. Does the average Malaysian at the mamak outlet not have a right to health then?
DR MURALLITHARAN M
National Cancer Society of Malaysia
Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control