“Gov’t should engage with the industry players transparently, or not at all”

THE Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control (MCTC) was irritated by a recent meeting of Health Ministry (MOH) officials with representatives from the tobacco industry.

In a statement, the anti-smoking council said it is worried that the meeting would hinder the Government’s effort to reduce tobacco consumption within the country.After the said meeting, apparently a social media posting with a caption was uploaded for future collaboration. Apparently, when this issue was highlighted, there were attempts to edit the posting. MCTC deemed this action to be a “clear signal of an attempt to hide these meetings.”The group had also stated that the meeting violated the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) treaty, which the country has ratified. It said that Article 5.3 of FCTC has specifically stated measures to protect public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.FCTC is a framework that outlines the principles of non-promotion of tobacco products, which include a ban on advertising and sponsorship, among others.However, should a meeting with MOH officials be deemed to have breached the FCTC?

The statement reads, “It is the clear understanding of all parties involved in tobacco control that the FCTC Unit within the MOH is the only unit whose offices are tasked with having any sort of interaction with the tobacco industry, and that too in an official capacity in terms of regulating tobacco control.

“The meeting of these two officials, who are not with the FCTC and have no legal or official standing with tobacco control measures, with tobacco product industry officials sends a worrying signal as to their purpose.”Given the strong response by MCTC, it also beckons the question: if regulators do not engage with the industry in an open and transparent manner, how would they understand what is going on in the industry? How would they make policies that are able to reach the goal of cutting down on smoking rates without working together with all parties?It must be stressed that Article 5.3 of the FCTC does not prohibit interaction with the tobacco industry.

The only legally binding provision is the actual text of Article 5.3 of the FCTC, which is quite short and vague: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”Its scope is therefore limited to the setting and implementation of public health policies. It only requires that governments ‘protect’ tobacco control policies from tobacco industry interests in accordance with national law.The FCTC Secretariat as well as anti-tobacco advocates from civil society have confirmed that Article 5.3 does not completely prohibit engagement by the industry.Furthermore, guidelines on the implementation of Article 5.3, which are not legally binding, emphasise transparency and accountability, not exclusion.Has the overzealous approach so far and its strict adherence to the FCTC resulted in lower smoking rates in the country?While the FCTC is very clear on media promotion bans, there is a need for open dialogue on this issue to achieve the desired outcome of stricter control and a reduction in smoking rates. An open and transparent engagement between MOH and the tobacco industry should be encouraged, and isolating and vilifying the industry is certainly not helping.Anti-tobacco voices should take a long, hard pause and ask themselves why, despite all their valiant efforts to control and clamp down on cigarette smoking, the vaping industry has been mushrooming right under the nose of MOH?

There needs to be a dialogue to understand issues from all sides.

To come up with best practises for Malaysia, there must be openness in listening to different sides of the arguments and looking at empirical data on smoking trends and the impact of regulation in other countries. Or does MOH refuse to accept studies and data that contradict their outdated viewpoints?Furthermore, isn’t it better to have these meetings transparently reported for the sake of public interest? — Feb 8, 2023


Ranjit Singh is a legal activist.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.


Main photo credit: NPR

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