Carve Up: Tobacco Companies Are Riding a Wave in Malaysia, Buoyed by Social Acceptance and Mixed Messages from the Government

By Assunta, Mary | New Internationalist, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Carve Up: Tobacco Companies Are Riding a Wave in Malaysia, Buoyed by Social Acceptance and Mixed Messages from the Government


Assunta, Mary, New Internationalist


[Graph Not Transcribed]

'WHAT would you do if your father or older brother asked you to buy him cigarettes?' NV Subbarow, a rural education officer with the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), watches a group of nervous pre-teens as they whisper and grimace. Shy sniggers from the under-12s gathered around Subbarow signal that tobacco education in this Malaysian village has to go beyond the usual health hazards info. The legal and social aspects of smoking must be tackled too.

NV Subbarow has been taking the tobacco control campaign across the country for more than 20 years. The smoking scourge in Malaysia is all-pervasive so he talks prevention with people of all ages and social strata.

Children have easy access to cigarettes, despite the fact that it is illegal to sell tobacco to minors. Besides cigarettes, rural shops provide a wide selection of groceries and shopkeepers are well known to the families they serve. When a boy or girl turns up at the shop on an elder's behalf, refusing to sell cigarettes to the child translates as denying the elder's patronage.

In towns, if a shopkeeper refuses sales to one teen, the next store a few metres away might not be so strict. Who wants to lose business when enforcement of the law is lax anyway?

Tobacco use is entrenched and hard to avoid; about half of the adult male population smokes. Walls and pay counters in coffee shops across the country are plastered with tobacco adverts. For many male office staff and blue-collar workers, the day starts with a cheap breakfast of roti canai (pancake) or nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and a cigarette at the roadside stall.

In rural communities it is common for cigarettes to be distributed to volunteers, including teenagers, at a kenduri (feast) where the whole village participates in the preparation and celebrations.

In an environment where the social acceptability of tobacco is high, coaxing children to hold back rings hollow. Children typically question why the Government doesn't just ban tobacco if it is so lethal or why it encourages tobacco farming, or worse, why their parents, teachers and community leaders still smoke.

As elsewhere in Asia, social taboo has kept smoking among women at low levels. While only 3.5 per cent of Malaysian women smoke, smoking among teenage girls has shot up from 4.8 per cent to 8 per cent - a trend attributed to the influence of advertisements linking tobacco to glamour.

But the biggest challenge for health advocates is trying to persuade politicians to do their job. Tobacco control legislation has been in place since 1994 and the Malaysian Government acknowledges that smoking has reached epidemic proportions. It claims 10,000 lives a year and is the country's top killer.

But glaring legal loopholes, particularly in advertising and promotions, allow the top three tobacco transnationals, British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris (Altria) and Japan Tobacco International (JTI), to conduct their business in a friendly environment. …

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