Health Minister Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad became a household name in October last year following his ministry’s announcement that smoking will be banned in all eateries, including open-air hawker centres, beginning Jan 1, 2019.
While non-smokers were jubilant, the news caused consternation amongst smokers who wasted no time in criticising the ministry’s decision.
Despite the objections from smokers and restaurant operators, Dzulkefly stood his ground and asserted that the decision was made with public interest in mind.
In fact, the minister was reportedly told that the no-smoking policy may cost him some votes during the Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) elections, due in June this year.
“It’s okay. I’d rather lose some votes than compromise on people’s health,” the Amanah strategic director was quoted as saying.
The Control of Tobacco Products (Amendment) Regulations 2018 — under the Food Act 1983 — were enforced on Jan 1. Under the amended regulations, smoking is banned in “any premises whether inside or outside a building, where food is prepared, served or sold” and “any area within a radius of three metres from any table or chair which is placed for the purpose of preparing, serving or selling food”.
Observers, non-governmental organisations and the public, in general, have lauded the Health Ministry for enforcing the new regulations aimed at protecting non-smokers from the effects of second-hand smoke.
The smoking ban in all eateries is also seen as the ministry’s biggest achievement over the past one year under the Pakatan Harapan government’s administration.
Malaysian Medical Association president Dr Mohamed Namazie Ibrahim said the smoking ban in all public places and the proposed Tobacco Control Act to be introduced at the end of this year proved that the government was committed to addressing smoking-related health issues.
“Hopefully, the ministry’s efforts to promote preventive measures in healthcare will serve as a reminder to the people about the danger of cigarette smoke and encourage them to practice healthy lifestyles,” he told Bernama, recently.
While it is a well-known fact that smoking can cause cardiovascular diseases and cancer, passive smokers (people who breathe in second-hand smoke) are also at risk of getting the same diseases. This is because second-hand smoke consists of a cocktail of about 4,000 poisonous chemical substances.
“In the long run, cigarette smoke can lead to heart disease and lung cancer, which is among the 14 most feared cancers,” he said.
The Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association’s Tobacco Control @ Smoke-Free Malaysia Initiative coordinator Muhammad Sha’ani Abdullah said the Control of Tobacco Products (Amendment) Regulations 2018 were in line with the Health Ministry’s objective of focusing on the preventive approach rather than healing.
He said it costs the government more than RM3 billion a year to treat diseases caused as a result of exposure to cigarette smoke, the amount being much more than what it earns in taxes from tobacco products.
“With the implementation of the new regulations, the almost 80 per cent of Malaysians who don’t smoke but are exposed to secondary cigarette smoke will be protected from imminent health hazards. This is the cheapest and most effective way to protect the people’s health,” he added.
Muhammad Sha’ani said the enforcement of no-smoking regulations at open-air food premises has enabled many people who usually eat out with their families to enjoy their food without having to worry about inhaling cigarette smoke.
Meanwhile, a survey carried out by the National Cancer Society involving 173 eateries in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya from April 1 to April 17 showed that most of the customers did not smoke in the prohibited areas.
A survey carried out by the Health Ministry also showed that most people were adhering to the new regulations, thus creating a more pleasant and comfortable dining environment for the public.
The positive impact of the smoking ban is also evident in the higher number of smokers registering themselves at the jomquit.moh.gov.my website with the intention of kicking the habit. Between January and April this year, 580 people registered at the website, compared with an average of 428 for the same period in previous years.
Muhammad Sha’ani also welcomed the ministry’s decision to extend its six-month smoking ban educational enforcement period to Dec 31. During this period, no fines will be imposed on smokers and food premise operators who flout the new no-smoking regulations.
“The extension will give smokers enough time to learn more about the danger posed by cigarette smoke,” he said.
Meanwhile, UiTM Private Specialist Centre lung consultant Prof Dr Mohammed Fauzi Abdul Rani said the Health Ministry’s focus on preventive care is also evident in its strategies to fight non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Among the initiatives it has introduced is the healthcare scheme for the B40 group (PeKa B40) which covers the health needs of recipients of the Cost of Living Aid and their spouses aged 50 and above.
PeKa B40, for which the government has initially allocated RM100 million, will benefit 800,000 people.
“Based on reports, the B40 group has more people suffering from NCDs than the M40 and T20 groups,” said Dr Mohammed Fauzi, adding that the scheme would enable members of the B40 group to seek treatment early in order to avoid complications from NCDs.
Since its introduction on April 15, a total of 2,443 people have gone for health screenings as of April 29.
Besides health screening, the beneficiaries are also entitled to medical aid equipment (limited to a maximum of RM20,000), an incentive to complete cancer treatment (RM1,000) and transportation fare incentives (RM500 for the peninsula and RM1,000 for Sabah/Sarawak/Labuan).
Dr Mohammed Fauzi, who was former dean of the Medical Faculty at Universiti Teknologi Mara, said the PeKa scheme, a collaboration between the government and private sector, allowed beneficiaries to get free health screenings at any participating clinic.
“But for treatment purposes, they have to go to a government clinic or hospital. It’s a good initiative nevertheless because it is quite expensive to get a health screening done at a private clinic,” he added.
Commenting on the establishment of the Health Advisory Council on March 27, Dr Mohammed Fauzi said the Health Ministry’s focus on the transformation of healthcare delivery and public-private partnership was timely.
He said enhancing public-private partnership in healthcare services would ultimately improve the nation’s healthcare system.
“Such cooperation can help to resolve some of the problems plaguing the public health sector, such as the long waiting time to see a doctor or specialist and congestion at public health facilities,” he said.
The Health Ministry has also implemented various other initiatives to improve the quality of its healthcare services, including setting up a task force to study the feasibility of making immunisation compulsory for all children.
The ministry is also planning to regulate drug prices to improve people’s access to affordable medicines. It will also restructure all its 1Malaysia Clinics into community clinics.
Medical officers and pharmacists will be placed at selected community clinics in stages.