With reference to the news report Tobacco players ask for moderation in tax hike on Aug 7, the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) strongly urge the government to reject the request of the tobacco industry to impose ‘moderate' tobacco tax in the pending Budget 2013.
The government should prioritise to protect the health and well-being of its citizens. According to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca), there were almost six million smoking-related deaths globally last year, 10 percent of which were in Asean countries.
With such shocking statistics, the government should drastically increase tobacco tax instead of heeding the Confederation of Malaysian Tobacco Manufacturers' (CMTM) suggestion.
CMTM had said that excessive tax "would cause significant price shocks to consumers" forcing smokers to turn to cheap illegal cigarettes.
Take Singapore as an example; the price per pack of 20 sticks is RM26 and the smoking rate among the adult population is 14 percent and that among those between 13 and 15 years old is 8 percent for boys and 5 percent for girls.
These are in stark contrast with the situation in Malaysia which sets the minimum price of cigarette packs of 20 sticks at RM7.
The smoking prevalence among adults is 23 percent while those aged between 13 and 15 year-olds are 30.9 percent for boys and 5.3 percent for girls.
This clearly shows that "significant price shocks" does work in the interest of consumers and their health.
In protecting public health, the government should rightfully send "significant price shocks" (in CMTM words) to the 4.4 million Malaysian smokers because, without which, the government will be struggling futilely to cope with the smoking epidemic.
This is the basis on which CAP had earlier proposed that cigarettes should cost at least RM30 per 20-stick pack.
We have to be aware that cigarettes are not an essential consumer item and among the primary reasons why they should be rightly be banned are: Cigarettes contain more than 4,000 chemicals, most of which are either toxic or carcinogenic; secondhand smoke can also kill non-smokers the way these chemicals do to smokers; and that the government and the victims' family is saddled with high medical costs for treating often debilitating smoking-related diseases, e.g. cancer treatment and cardiovascular diseases.
Nicotine is highly addictive, five to ten times more addictive than cocaine or heroin. In fact, the industry refers cigarettes as a "nicotine delivery device".
Smokers do experience withdrawal symptoms when they do not smoke. If nicotine is so addictive, why must the government entertain the industry players while coming down hard on other drug smugglers?
Moreover, one may need a doctor's prescription for codeine-based cough mixture but you do not need a prescription for buying cigarettes. It is a complete irony.
Drastically increasing cigarette price through excessive tax also deters the youth and the poor from taking up smoking. They are the most vulnerable groups but they are most sensitive to price increases.
Moreover, World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) advocates massive tax increase.
While high cigarette prices will help deter would-be smokers, the government is able to use revenue generated from tobacco tax to fund anti-tobacco programmes and also for the treatment of patients with smoking-related diseases.
While increasing the price of cigarettes, the government should seriously consider a mandatory jail sentence and confiscating the properties and of those involved in the illegal trade, including the retailers. Smokers who are caught in possession of such cigarettes should be heavily fined.
Licensing of retailers is one way of regulating the sale of cigarettes and those caught selling illegal cigarettes should be blacklisted and banned from selling cigarettes.
The reason for this is that such smuggled cigarettes are often contaminated with heavy metals, animal droppings, and dirt.
This adds additional health risks on smokers besides being illegal and therefore these smokers should not be exempted from tough punishment by the law because they are exposing themselves and secondhand smokers to harm.
If they develop smoking-related diseases, the country loses out in terms of man-hour loss and also for the treatment.
CMTM pointed out that the government lost some RM2 billion per year in tobacco excise revenue from smuggling activities. However, the government could earn more if it increases tobacco tax and confiscate the property and assets of those involved in the illegal trade.
The health and well-being of its citizens is priceless. The government has to walk its talk since it became a Party to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005.
SM Mohamed Idris is president of the Consumers Association of Penang