Time To End Malaysia’s Cruel April Fool’s Nicotine Joke: Learning From Australia – Prof Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

9 May 2023

While Australia bans disposable vapes and puts prescription vape in “pharmacy-like packaging” with flavour-free, plain packaged vapes, Malaysia uses a free-for-all vape strategy. Will the tobacco & vape bill end Malaysia’s cruel April Fool’s nicotine joke?

The issue of underaged school children experiencing a nicotine high through vaping has caused much stir as to why we landed in such a precarious predicament.

Many felt that we should have known better as a modern scientific upper middle income humane country, rather than opting to indirectly open up our precious schools to be vape-friendly following the infamous U-turn decision alluded to by the Health Minister.

And turning them into grounds for potential young addicts.

No one could appreciate the level of apathy (if not stupidity) involved, until the Australian government reportedly launched war on vaping last week.

By declaring it as the “number-one behavioural issue in high schools”, Australia got everyone to sit up and listen intensely with much optimism.

The Australian federal government in announcing the crackdown on vaping, states clearly measures to stamp out its recreational use – especially among the young – inclusive of stronger legislation and enforcement action.

Ours, in comparison, seemed to be just the opposite. Until today, everyone is still waiting for the justification, if any, from Malaysia’s Ministry of Health (MOH) as to why it vetoed the Poisons Board advice and recommendation to keep nicotine legally where it was. No change, period. The silence is deafening!

Australia’s Health Minister Mark Butler, instead, was clear: “Vaping has become the number one behavioural issue in high schools. And it’s becoming widespread in primary schools.”

Similarly, for Malaysia according to various experiences. If so, why the stark contrast in articulating the same issue locally?

Worse, our version seems diametrically the opposite, namely, to make vaping the number one behavioural issue, if it is not already happening.

It further boggles the mind to find out that Mark Butler is not even a science, let alone a medical professional. Yet, he seemed to grasp the issue so well and presented bold statements that usher confidence in defence of the vulnerable against the unscrupulous!

In our case, they sank deeper into despair when they were deliberately made as targets, courtesy of the supposed elected custodian of public health! Even that, after numerous pieces of advice against it.

When Australia offered specific action like putting vape on prescription in “pharmacy-like packaging” (following the example of plain packaging for cigarettes adopted by Australia), we used a free-for-all vape strategy!

When the Aussies increased the minimum quality standards for prescription vape, with restrictions on flavours and colours, we lifted all restrictions that used to be there for the purpose of taxation.

While the Australians reduced the permissible nicotine concentrations and volumes, and banned single-use, disposable vapes, we allowed them to boost sales, according to one major vendor when interviewed recently.

Such lackadaisical attitudes and actions are about the only valid “reasons” as to why the Ministry insisted on delisting nicotine in order to force it down the throats of the lay public, including the underaged, for some unimaginable reason.

Again, unlike the Malaysian case, the Australian government is committed to work with other jurisdictions, to shut down the sale of vapes, ending sales at convenience stores and other retailers. Not the other way round.

Despite that, the Australians declared their commitment to make it easier for those who want prescription for legitimate therapeutic use.

Under the scheme, all general practitioners will be able to prescribe flavour-free, plain packaged vapes to patients working to quit smoking.

No doubt, Butler left no uncertainty when he stated that vape was not sold as a recreational product – especially not for our kids. The same for Malaysia, but with a flawed narrative.

Butler warned the gains made in the fight against smoking “could be undone by a new threat to public health,” arguably similar to that advanced by numerous Malaysian professionals and concerned citizens, but Malaysia ends up in life-threatening blind spots. As though there is a conspiracy to turn a blind eye.

Yet for Butler: “This is a very serious problem we’re facing and it has exploded over the last few years. While we were focused on the pandemic, it has utterly exploded and we’ve got to deal with it now.”

He has his eyes wide open reaffirming that easy access to vapes (which we have just successfully enforced on April 1) will create a new generation of nicotine addicts!

Our failure is too embarrassing to articulate (hence the silence!), given the same set of issues since we deliberately chose to “create” our own “new generation of nicotine addicts,” and the determination to keep the process intact and undeterred, amidst an untold number of criticisms.

Last but not least is the hint that the Australian government will allocate $234 million in this week’s budget to reduce harm caused by tobacco and vaping products, including stopping the importation of non-prescription vapes.

It is based on the principle of “first do no harm“; not the reverse like collecting taxes at the expense of promoting harm knowingly, regardless of the advice offered!

For Malaysia, this much awaited moment will come in a few weeks from now, when the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023 is due to be tabled in Parliament as promised.

Will the bill matching the effort to reduce harm become the closure to the April Fool’s joke that has gone long enough? Is it not time to let the real fool be identified and be made fully accountable to victimised children?

Prof Dzulkifli Abdul Razak is a neuropharmacologist who served as the inaugural director of the National Poison Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia.