I’d like to relook at the vision of WHO as far as Tobacco is concerned to create a world free of tobacco, tobacco-free people, communities and environment and in a country where nearly 43% males are smokers, I think this is still a major issue and I believe that we can’t handle the issue of tobacco without looking at the trade and economic aspects of tobacco.
First, tobacco is grown in many countries. I don’t know how many countries in the WPRO region grow tobacco. We used to have a small tobacco industry in Malaysia which we have attempted to freeze out over a period of time and I think the aspect of control of tobacco has to start from the point of the growth of tobacco itself. As growing tobacco could be an economic means, a livelihood for a group of people or at the same time, a source of income to many countries. I think it is important that we address that issue and how to try to freeze out the growth of tobacco over a period of time by giving alternative opportunities to people who may be more involved in the trade and that probably will be one important tool in trying to achieve our achievement.
On the other aspect, Tobacco is a trade tool. I believe that Malaysia is quite consistent in this idea that we should try to exclude tobacco in all forms of trade agreements. We have actually made this representation recently, in an on-going trade agreement discussion called the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) with countries, some of which are present here today, that tobacco should be totally carved out of that discussion because in principle we believe that any attempt to liberalize or reduce tariffs should not include tobacco as part and parcel of it.
It will actually be a mockery, on one hand, we actually support reduction in tariffs upon tobacco and on the other hand, we are trying to control smoking and the tobacco industry. So it is essential that this understanding is reached among countries, not only the health component is going to deal with tobacco but there has to be the other. I agree with WHO it has to be a multi-sectoral involvement with the other components of the government which are involved should actually look at this part and ensure that we all make a commitment so that tobacco will not be a part of any attempt of liberalization of trade and if at all we do it, we actually must restrict the trade of tobacco.
The third area which I would like to touch upon which I think is very important is that we pay tremendous importance on the illicit trade in tobacco which is exemplified in 2.5 of the Legislations Regulations and for example in our country, we have an estimate probably about 30% of all our smokers smoke illicit cigarettes and while I agree that some countries have increased the access duty up to 70% – 75% of trade but the increase in excess duty might negate the reduction in number of smokers if we still have an availability of illicit cigarettes.
For example in Malaysia, the price difference between the illicit cigarette and the legal cigarette is about RM8 which is substantial because the illicit cigarette actually costs about one third the costs of legal cigarettes.So attempting to increase the excess duty and making legal cigarettes more and more expensive, we might inadvertently actually increase the number of smokers who may turn over to illicit cigarettes. While I am not against the idea of increasing the excess duty as I know that there is evidence to show that beyond a certain point it reduces the number of people who smoke and there is also evidence to show that people tend to stick to their brands so those who might actually smoke legal cigarettes will continue to smoke legal cigarettes despite the increase in prices, but what is important is that there has got to be a concerted effort in two directions. While on one side we try to increase the access duty tax, the other side we have to have a war on cross-boundary smuggling amongst some of the countries here itself, we have cross-boundary smuggling and how we can through a multi-sectorial approach attempt to reduce this so that the amount of illicit cigarettes which are available in the market could be reduced so that the impact in increase of excess duty can be fully felt.
The last area is a comment passed by some of our colleagues is about the interference from the tobacco industry.I think it will be fool hardy for us to expect that the tobacco industry will not interfere. By virtue of being the Tobacco industry itself, it is their duty to interfere and they will continue to interfere. So we have to strengthen our capacity to meet up to that kind of interference particularly I would like to state one thing which is going on now and it is the attempt by the tobacco industry to take legal actions on countries which imposed harm informing labels and requesting them to provide evidence that such labeling will reduce the number of people who smoke. So that kind of approach by the industry has to be met by us in having sufficient evidence on a global premise initiated maybe by WHO and probably seconded by all of us so that we can provide the evidence to state that every action that we are doing is actually based on evidence and actually produces results and that should be the basis which can defend our countries on implementing a novel and strategic policies to control. Otherwise, if the aim of the industry is to frighten countries from implementing control mechanisms by virtue of court actions and legal remedies, then I think that will put a lot of countries to fear. They may be fearful of actually implementing control mechanisms.
So these are a few of the thoughts which are probably quite different from the others which I would like to share so that we can look at this whole perspective in an entirely different way.
Thank you very much.
Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam
Minister of Health Malaysia