LAST_UPDATESat, 21 Apr 2018 9pm

After Expanding Smoking Ban In Public, Why Expatriates Say Our Anti-Smoking Laws Are A Joke

It’s 6:30 pm on a Sunday evening. In a crowded mamak stall in Petaling Jaya groups of friends, couples and families are chatting and waiting for their dinner while hectic waiters are yelling food orders at each other in Tamil.

The air in the lively food stall smells like fried cooking oil and tobacco. In every corner there is someone with a fuming cigarette.

Dennis Henkelmann, a 26 year old tourist from Germany, is looking forward to finally having dinner, but feels disturbed by the bad air quality in the eatery.

“I am annoyed by the smoke and I think it’s very inconsiderate of people to smoke in such a crowded place, but everybody just accepts it,” he complains.

Despite being uncomfortable and aware of the health risks passive smoking poses, he has no choice but to endure it until he finished his dinner.

He is one of many non-smokers who, when stuck in a particular place like a food stall or a bus stop, feel like they are forced to endure other people’s second hand smoke.

Khia Jhin, 22, grew up as a non-smoker in Malaysia but said that he is already used to inhaling the smoke of people around him in public. “It’s no big deal, for us it’s normal,” he said.

Smoking in public places seems to be so common that it has already become socially acceptable.

When asked how she deals with smokers who refuse to be considerate, Vivian Yew from Damansara Jaya answered that she just leaves them alone.

“I have never seen anyone telling smokers to stop smoking and I wouldn’t do it either. It’s their own business. I wouldn’t call the police just for that.”

This seems to be the attitude that causes smoke-filled air in many eateries to ruin the experience of customers like Dennis who added that he actually thinks that this is unacceptable.

“I wish people here were more aware of the health risks linked to passive smoking”.

Refusing To Stop Smoking Will Earn The Smoker A Visit From The Police In Germany

As a German student studying in Malaysia, I can tell you that the same scene would play out very differently in Germany.

Whenever someone lights up a cigarette in a crowded area in Germany, it doesn’t take long for someone to approach that person regardless of whether smoking in that particular place is allowed or not.

If it’s a non-smoking area like a food stall, then refusing to stop smoking would probably earn the smoker a visit from the police.

“When someone smokes in a crowded place with families and children then of course she or he needs to be punished,” opined Gabi Möller from Wiesbaden, Germany.

Florian Heinrich, 25, is a smoker living in Germany and he thinks that smoking in public would be a very selfish act.

“It’s an unhealthy habit and exposing other people to second hand smoke would be egoistical.

Whenever I want to smoke I go outside. I would do that regardless of the law”.

In Germany, eight states, including Berlin, have already declared their pubs and restaurants smoke-free since 2008 while the toughest rules in Germany are found in Bavaria, where no smoking rooms are even allowed.

Even the traditional Oktoberfest Munich beer festival moved to ban smoking for the first time by 2010.

After almost a decade of tough enforcement of anti-smoking laws in Germany, the statistics actually showed a sharp decline in smoking rate among teenagers, DW reports.

The Federal Center for Health Education revealed in a report in February 2012 that 11.7 percent of Germans aged 12 to 17 admitted to smoking cigarettes in 2011, down from 27.5 percent in 2001. The data was based on surveys of around 5,000 youths and young adults conducted last year on their drug habits.

Even among the most highly prolific smoking group of 18- to 25-year-olds, data showed that they smoked at a rate of 36.8 percent in 2011, down from 44.5 percent in 2001. This goes to show that cracking down on smokers does work.

How come the attitude towards smoking in public seems to be so different in Malaysia?

Imagine my surprise in learning that Malaysia has just expanded the ban to include public areas recently as to any observer, many Malaysian smokers are still lighting up at whim.

What Makes Smoking So Much More Common And Tolerated In Malaysia Compared To Germany?

Whatever it is, it definitely isn’t the law.

Malaysia has recently extended the smoking ban in public places resulting in very strict regulations that aren’t very different from the ones Germany has put in place.

“The Control of Tobacco Product (Amendment) Regulations 2017, which were announced by Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam under the Food Act on Jan 16, were gazetted on Jan 24.” The Star reported.

It is now prohibited in Malaysia to smoke at all restaurants, playgrounds, public parks, camp sites, game courts and most other public places while the previous smoking zones mostly disappeared.

Whoever gets caught lighting a cigarette in a smoke free zone can be fined up to RM 10.000 or jailed for up to 2 years.

The laws in Malaysia are therefore very similar to the ones in Germany where since 2008 smoking has been banned in all of these places and offenders can be fined up to 5.000 Euro (RM 23.000).

The main difference between Malaysia and Germany when it comes to dealing with smokers in public places seems to be the law enforcement and the public’s attitude towards smoking.

Even after the Malaysian smoking ban was imposed, The Star reported that despite the new regulations nothing has changed.

“A check by The Star found many Malaysians and foreigners openly smoking at several other public parks as well as R&R stops”.

Any crackdown on smoking is on an ad-hoc basis with the last known operation back in May last year when the Health Ministry issued 989 notices on smoking offences during Ops Puntung that was carried out nationwide from May 12 to 14 in conjunction with World No Tobacco Day, NST reports.

Health Department director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah told reporters that the majority of the offences were issued at areas designated as non-smoking (974) with compounds totalling RM 245,350.00 for the three day crackdown. After that, smokers simply went back to their usual habits without any fear of further enforcement.

This is in stark contrast to the way the anti-smoking law has been enforced in Germany.

In Bavaria, for example, the police is taking anti-smoking laws very seriously.

According to the police has been patrolling the streets and raiding bars and restaurants looking for smokers since the ban was implemented.

The local Bavarian newspaper reported that the day after the ban on smoking was passed in Bavaria “172 bars have been visited by the police and 12 landlords will be fined 1000 Euro (RM 4700).”

The attitude and the lack of enforcement make it seem as if the risks of smoking are not taken as seriously in Malaysia as in Germany.

Apathy Due To Lack Of Awareness About The Health Risks Of Second Hand Smoke

Not only do smokers defy the ban with impunity in Malaysia, in fact many smokers often see smoke free zones as unfair and discriminatory against them.

“What about the smokers? Where have no place to go anymore. I am not blowing the smoke into anyone’s face,” commented Vincent Wong, a 23 year old student from Petaling Jaya.

“They should create more awareness on the issue and not simply force it down our throat,” another smoker told The Star.

Are Malaysians less concerned about the negative health effects tobacco has on the human body or is there just a lack of awareness?

The different attitude towards smoking in public in Malaysia might come from a lack of awareness about the health risks linked to second hand smoke.

The effects of passive smoking have been observed in a 2010 study that took place in 192 countries.

“The first global study into the effects of passive smoking has estimated it causes 600,000 deaths every year,” a report published by the BBC said.

The dangers of second hand smoke is often neglected, because governments primarily focus on reducing the number of smokers by increasing taxes or putting warning signs on the packages.

According to the latest National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS), there are an estimated five million smokers in Malaysian, or 22.8 per cent of the population.

"Although the number of smokers has reduced by 0.3 per cent compared to 23.1 per cent in 2011, the reduction is still not significant enough as more awareness and efforts must be taken to stop smoking," Deputy Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya, NST reports.

Dr Hilmi also stressed that four out 10 or 7.6 million Malaysian adults are exposed to secondhand smoke inside their houses, four of 10 or 2.3 million adults at workplaces, and seven out 10 or 8.6 million adults at public places like restaurants.

Yet, if you stop at any rest stop along the highway or take a stroll through the KLCC park and you can easily spot smokers puffing away. How many of those smokers are even aware that it is now illegal to light up in those areas, let alone know that their smoking is endangering the health of those around them?

"There Is No Safe Level Of Secondhand Smoke" - National Cancer Society

Passive smoking is much more harmful than many people think.

The unfiltered smoke coming from the burning tip of the cigarette (sidestream smoke) is even more unhealthy than the regular smoke inhaled by the smoker.

According to Cancer Research UK sidestream smoke contains 3 times as much carbon dioxide, 10-30 times more nitrosamines and 15-300 times more ammonia.

Therefore they call it “about 4 times more toxic than mainstream smoke, although people inhale it in a more diluted form.”

Cancer Research UK also stated that passive smoking can increase a non-smoker’s risk of getting lung cancer by a quarter while also increasing the risk of other types of cancer.

Dr Jain who is working as a medical practitioner in Terengganu told Malaysian Digest that passive smoking is just as harmful as smoking actively, if not worse.

“Passive smokers inhale whatever the smoker exhales, but without the filter”.

The toxins are not just increased after being exhaled by the smoker together carbon dioxide, they can also enter the passive smoker’s lungs unhindered by the filter.

When asked about whether the current laws in place protect non-smokers sufficiently, she said that neither the current laws nor the law enforcement are enough.

“Even if there is a no smoking sign, I still see people smoking – it seems like there is no punishment at all,” she said.

In her opinion it would make more sense to just ban smoking completely, which underscore the severity of the existing problem in Malaysia.

According to data from The Tobacco Atlas, around 19100 Malaysians are killed annually by tobacco-caused diseases while 126000 children and more than 4178000 adults continue to use tobacco each day.

They also stated that in 2010 19% of men and 8,2% of women have died due to smoking.

Malaysian Digest also reached out to the National Cancer Society Malaysia which responded to our enquiries by stressing that particles of second hand smoke are smaller and therefore even more dangerous and can also cause cancer.

“Second hand smoke is known to cause lung cancer."

According to data from 2011 forwarded by the society, 4 in 10 Malaysian adults were exposed to second hand smoke in their workplace and homes while 7 in 10 Malaysian adults were exposed in restaurants.

While calling the new anti-smoking laws a good step, the NGO also emphasised that it is insufficient and suggests that it should be expanded even more.

“However, rather than setting up areas where smoking is banned, all public areas should be smoke-free. This would mean that wherever you are in public, you can’t smoke unless permitted.”

The society explicitly points out that there is no safe level of second hand smoke and people need to become more aware of how unhealthy and dangerous passive smoking actually is.

“More Malaysians need to know about the harms of smoking at home or in the car. Young children mainly breathe in second-hand smoke in their home.”

It might be these facts and numbers that will make non-smokers more aggressive in protecting themselves against second hand smoke and helps smokers understand and respect anti-smoking laws.

For the sake of the well-being of future generations, the attitude of Malaysians towards smoking laws and its enforcement have to change.