Malaysia needs new Act for tobacco control, says ex-MOH official

KUALA LUMPUR, May 24 — Putrajaya must enact a standalone law on tobacco control with standardised packaging rules before the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement comes into effect, a retired Health Ministry official said today.

Dr Zarihah Mohd Zain, former head of the tobacco control unit at the Health Ministry who served there from 1994 to 2012, said even though tobacco has been carved out from the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions in the free trade treaty, other provisions in the TPP like the transparency chapter allow the industry to be consulted as a stakeholder in relevant policy and lawmaking.

“The current Control of Tobacco Product Regulations made under the Food Act are not sufficient,” Dr Zarihah told Malay Mail Online.

She considers the Food Act to be unsuitable for legislating cigarettes, and warned that it will be very difficult to enforce plain packaging under the current tobacco regulations.

“Tobacco is not food,” said Dr Zarihah, who is currently medical director of non-governmental organisation Malaysian Women Action for Tobacco Control and Health.

The UK introduced plain packaging legislation last Friday, The Guardian reported. It joins Australia, France and Ireland, where brightly-coloured cigarette packs will be replaced with a drab dark brown, and brand names in standard font and health warnings covering 60 per cent of the pack.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam told Parliament last March that plain packaging would be enforced in future, but declined to announce an implementation date until Putrajaya concludes talks with tobacco companies on intellectual property rights.

Dr Zarihah explained that the tobacco carve-out from ISDS provisions in the TPP, which Malaysia has signed, merely prevents tobacco companies from directly suing the government.

“But the industry can go through the US government to sue the Malaysian government,” she said.

“If you ask me what has the TPP anything to do with plain packaging, well, that free trade agreement has strong provisions for intellectual property and allows the tobacco industry to interfere with the process of enacting policies or laws to control tobacco. Of course the industry will fight tooth and nail to stop that,” Dr Zarihah added.

She said there has been pressure for a standalone tobacco control law in Malaysia over the past five years, and noted that neighbouring countries like Singapore and Thailand are ahead with such legislation.

Dr Zarihah also pointed out that Malaysia is party to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which she said can result in conflicting government policies if Malaysia is also signatory to the US-led TPP.

“FCTC says you must protect public health law from commercial influence and TPP requires the commercial party, that is the tobacco industry, to be part and parcel of policies. It’s conflicting,” she said.

The TPP has heavier penalties than the FCTC like economic sanctions, she added.

National newswire Bernama reported International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed as saying last March that legal amendments in relation to the TPP could be completed by the end of the year.