By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

Despite many false starts the decision to ban smoking outright, like in Singapore, never saw the light of day until the passage of the Control of Tobacco Product (Amendment) Regulation 2017. The amended bill, which came into force on Wednesday, February 1, 2017, makes smoking in gazetted public areas a crime punishable with a RM5000 compound and if taken to court, a fine of RM10,000 or a jail term of two years or both.

A cooling period was allowed for states to enforce the new ruling which was made mandatory on Thursday June 1. Perak and Selangor were among the states who observed the June 1 ruling.

The regulation defines a public park as “an open area for the purposes of leisure and recreation and contains soft or hard landscapes, or both, such as pedestrian paths, playing fields, game courts and playgrounds.”

In Selangor educational and awareness activities were held beginning February 15. Over in Perak the programmes were in place on January 1. The responsibility was entrusted to the Perak Health Department under the direction of Dato’ Dr Mah Hang Soon, the Executive Councillor for health, non-Islamic affairs, Chinese new villages, public transportation and national integration committees.

According to Mah, some 517 compound notices were issued between January and April and 513 of them paid up. The health department conducted 96 operations involving over 880 public premises during the four-month period. Among the premises checked were hospitals, the airport, entertainment outlets, public transports, government buildings, shopping complexes, children's playgrounds, cyber cafes and recreational areas. 

Cases not compounded were dealt with in court. Some 194 cases were brought to court and 25 offenders were fined. The total fine collected was RM9750.

The efforts by the authorities to instil awareness and enforce the no-smoking ruling are commendable but how effective are they? Ipoh Echo sent its undercover team out on a ‘recce’ and here is their report:                

The places the team visited were Polo Ground, Tesco and Jusco supermarkets, children’s playgrounds, Ipoh Padang, restaurants and car parks. Since it was right smack in the fasting month of Ramadan, human activities were rather limited.

However, there was a feeling of apathy, as the people the team spoke to were unaware that smoking in parks, air-conditioned buildings, government offices and on playing fields was taboo.

At Polo Ground the team came upon a group of youngsters who were puffing away without a care in the world. They messed up the spot where they sat and cigarette butts were strewn everywhere. Apparently, this same group of kids would gather at the spot in the evenings to chat and while away their time. They looked every bit like “Mat Rempits” enjoying a break after an illegal race on the road.

Well, it is pointless to knock sense into these kids, as smoking and appearing scruffy are part and parcel of their physical make-up. In short, apathy is written all over their faces. This popular culture is so prevalent among Malay youths of today and no amount of counselling and cajoling would make them repent.

The scene was similar at the Tesco covered car park in Ipoh Garden. Cigarette butts were aplenty, especially at the inner parts of the car park. The culprits had to be motorists who had little or no regard for cleanliness, let alone their physical well-being. They had no qualms to smoke and litter the grounds they walk on. A pathetic lot I must say.

Smoking is an acquired habit. I was quite a smoker during my formative years. I picked up the habit while in secondary school in the company of my friends who smoked purely for the heck of it. It was an adult thing, and over time we were hooked. However, military discipline requires me to be fit and alert, both physically and mentally. The problem was compounded by the issuance of cigarette ration to troops on operations. Every soldier then was entitled to 50 sticks a month, which came neatly packed in tins and distributed to us in the frontline.

Soon I had to decide whether to kick the habit or to continue it at the risk of my health. The death of a dear friend from lung cancer was what prompted me to quit smoking. It was in 1979 when I was stationed at Terendak Camp, Malacca. My smoking ‘misadventure’ lasted over 20 years. What a relief.

One must have the resolve and the determination to quit for good. Many tried but failed. They made one resolution after another, but sadly none stuck.

Creating awareness, in all fairness, is good but will it work? Raising the price of cigarettes has little impact overall, as smokers have access to smuggled cigarettes. The only option left is enforcement, and this is one area the authorities in Ipoh lack. A campaign will start off with a bang but after a while things are back to normal. Let’s hope the smoking ban will not suffer the same fate.