Malaysia: Plain packaging protects the human right to health

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9 June 2016

Representing various Malaysian groups and associations, the National Cancer Society of Malaysia is responding to the statement ‘Plain cigarette packaging an infringement against trademarks’ that was published in Malaysiakini on June 2, 2016.

About 20,000 people die from tobacco related diseases every year in Malaysia. These deaths are preventable, many occurring among people who are still in their productive years.

In stretching the right to own intellectual property (trademark) as a fundamental human right, the Property Rights Alliance should not stub out a very basic human right – the right to health. The fundamental human right to health is violated when tobacco is sold in attractive packaging and when its users are ignorant of the real consequences of smoking.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco-related illness is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced. There is one death every six seconds in the world, and one death every 30 minutes in Malaysia.

There were about 4.5 million smokers in 2005 when Malaysia ratified the tobacco treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Now, 10 years later the Health Ministry reports there are about 5 million smokers. This poses a big disease burden to the country.

As Health Minister Dr S Subramaniam has recently stated that anti-smoking campaigns are not effective in helping smokers curb their addiction, it is crucial that the country focuses on policy and regulation, including a tobacco act, to reduce smoking as well as the possible premature deaths of smokers.

Good health is wealth to the nation. Losing potentially millions of people still in their productive years is a tremendous economic loss to the country. The business sector has ignored that an increase in the number of sick people results in loss of productivity.

There are 16 types of cancers associated with smoking. The number of new cancer cases is projected to increase from 37,000 cases in 2012 to about 56,000 in 2025.

According to the Health Ministry, tobacco use accounted for 35 percent of in-hospital deaths in Malaysia, mainly from cancer, heart disease and stroke.

Plain packaging is a decision from the WHO FCTC and not applicable to other products. Hence it is misleading for the Property Rights Alliance to say there has been an international trend towards plain packaging for different items such as alcohol, sugary foods and toys. There is no such trend.

Plain packaging was recommended in the WHO FCTC Guidelines as part of a comprehensive approach to tobacco control that includes large graphic health warnings and comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. The Malaysian government along with other countries (now 180) adopted these guidelines in 2008.

The Property Rights Alliance claims that plain packaging prohibits the use of trademarks. According to the WHO director-general, Dr Margaret Chan, “Plain packaging reduces the attractiveness of tobacco products. It kills the glamour, which is appropriate for a product that kills people.”

Besides Australia, the UK, France and Ireland are now implementing plain packaging. The tobacco industry challenged plain packaging in these countries with the intellectual property argument and lost. The intellectual property laws of these countries remain robust. Australia has among the lowest smoking prevalence in the world.

It is heartening to see many other countries moving forward with their plain packaging legislation.

It is time to stop the senseless deaths. We fully support the government to implement plain packaging of tobacco.


1. The National Cancer Society of Malaysia
2. Malaysian Medical Association
3. Infomed
4. MyWatch
5. Malaysian Academy of Pharmacy
6. Malaysian Paediatric Association
7. Malaysian Association for Adolescent Health
8. Family Medicine Specialists Association of Malaysia
9. Addiction Medicine Association Malaysia
10. Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations
11. Consumers Association of Penang