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Malaysia & the tobacco industry: Let the evidence speak for itself

29 March 2024

Recently, on 15 March 2024, the Malaysian Deputy Minister of Health, Datuk Lukanisman Awang Sauni, revealed in Parliament that pressure and lobbying from the tobacco and vape industry had influenced a “decision” on the anti-smoking bill, against including the generational endgame (GEG) provision. In 2023, although Malaysia appeared to be the first country to include a GEG component in the omnibus tobacco control law, subsequently the clause was dropped when the law was passed in October 2023. While tobacco control advocates believed the tobacco industry lobby was responsible for this, it was refreshing to hear the Deputy Minister call out the industry’s role.

However, just days later, the Health Minister, Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad, refuted this claim stating his deputy was misquoted or misunderstood (Figure 1). The Health Minister defended tobacco & vape industry lobbyists meeting MPs in Parliament as “appropriate in any mature and civil democracy”, despite requirements under Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC.

Figure 1
Instances of unnecessary interactions with the tobacco industry

15 March 2024 Malaysian Deputy Health Minister
“The tobacco industry lobbied against GEG” (Generational endgame)

Datuk Lukanisman Awang Sauni: Pressure and lobbying from the tobacco and vape industry had influenced a “decision” on the anti-smoking bill, against including the generational endgame (GEG) provision.

20 March 2024: Malaysian Health Minister:
“Meeting with the tobacco industry is appropriate in any mature democracy”

Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad defended tobacco & vape industry lobbyists meeting MPs in Parliament as “appropriate in any mature and civil democracy”. According to him, GEG was killed due to Attorney General Chamber’s position, and not industry influence. He claimed the Deputy Health Minister was misquoted or misunderstood.

Had Malaysia implemented Article 5.3, there would be no confusion and the tobacco industry would not be allowed to lobby policy makers and parliamentarians. However, efforts to implement Article 5.3 which began in 2014 and have since stalled. There is no code of conduct to guide government officials, including the Ministry of Health.

It is unclear what parliamentary procedure was applied to allow tobacco industry executives to lobby parliamentarians. Malaysia also does not have a register for lobbyists.

According to Article 5.3 guidelines, governments officials should interact with the tobacco industry only when strictly necessary for its regulation.

In reality, tobacco industry lobbying of top officials is a regular occurrence both in the country and abroad. Transnational tobacco companies have specific job portfolios to engage with and lobby policy makers. BAT has an executive position called “government liaison”, Philip Morris’ position is “Manager, Regulatory Affairs” while Japan Tobacco International has a position for “Regulatory Engagement Manager”.

Tobacco industry executives have on many occasions met with the very top officials in Malaysia (Figure 2). Government officials should not endorse the tobacco industry and since the government does not have a procedure to guide its meetings with the tobacco industry, industry executives publicize their meetings with senior officials to demonstrate the government’s endorsement of the industry. This undermines the country’s obligations under the WHO FCTC.

The WHO FCTC also calls on governments to denormalise tobacco related CSR activities (Article 5.3) and to ban these activities (Article 13) because they are a form of sponsorship. More than 100 countries in the world have banned such CSR activities or strictly regulated them.

According to MOH officials, Malaysia has banned tobacco related CSR activities. However, in August 2023, the Deputy Prime Minister endorsed BAT’s CSR community program and extended it to become national wide by linking it to a government entity, FELCRA Bhd. 

Figure 2
Interactions between top government officials and the tobacco industry

22 Sep 2023, New York

Reported by CEO of AmCHam Malaysia on LinkedIn: Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, when in New York for UNGA, held a meeting with U.S. companies hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the US-ASEAN Business Council. Philip Morris Malaysia’s CEO, Naeem Shahab Khan met the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance along with other companies such as Amazon, Boeing and  Conoco Phillips.  The Prime Minister was accompanied by the Minister of Trade, Investment and Industry, Health Minister, and other senior government officials.

Ref: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/siobhandas_newyork-malaysia-unga-activity-7111647313567109120-j_oF

12 Aug 2023 Deputy Prime Minister launches BAT’s CSR programme, Beyond Benih

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also the Rural and Regional Development Minister, officially unveiled the national expansion of BAT Malaysia’s Beyond Benih community farm program. He welcomed BAT to collaborate with Felcra Bhd in developing unutilised lands. FELCRA has around 230,000ha of land nationwide which involves farms and padi estates.

Ref: DPM Zahid launches national expansion of BAT Malaysia’s “Beyond Benih” programme (focusmalaysia.my)

Ref: https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2023/08/941434/dpm-urges-collaboration-among-private-sector-and-government-agencies#google_vignette

October 2023: BAT’s Corporate Affairs executive mingling with MPs freely in Parliament

11 March 2022: BAT’s Corporate Affairs Executive had a meeting with the Deputy Minister of Plantation, Industries and  Commodities

20 Aug 2021: BAT’s Corporate Affairs Executive poses with then Prime Minister, Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri bin Yaakob

16 Oct 2019: In Putrajaya – BAT executive meeting with the Minister of Rural Development

BAT Malaysia’s Corporate Affairs Executive has posed with top leadership in the country on various occasions these past few years and publicized these images/meetings on his facebook/linkedIn accounts. The objective and outcome of these meetings are not known to the public.

Implementation of Article 5.3 is an obligation for Parties to the WHO FCTC. The Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index reviews countries’ efforts in implementation of Article 5.3 and shows Malaysia has been steadily declining in its scores, meaning increased industry interference, over the years. Malaysia’s 2023 Index released in July last year, while the GEG bill was still being debated, revealed the extent of industry interference in policy in the country.

Only the industry gains when tobacco endgame policies are defeated.

In New Zealand, a world leader in endgame policy aiming to become smoke-free by 2025, surprised the world recently by repealing its smoke-free legislation by its new government. A media expose has revealed the leadership having links with tobacco industry.

For more information on tobacco industry interference see here for Malaysia, New Zealand, Asian, Global.

 

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