There are only two examples of the Tobacco-Free Generation (TFG) policy in the world – Balanga City, Philippines (the law is enjoined pending a tobacco industry lawsuit) and Brookline, Massachusetts (not enjoined but also being sued by the industry). This represents a population of around 160,000; not a terribly large proportion of humanity. But that proportion is likely to go up dramatically in the coming months.
Most of us involved in the tobacco wars are familiar with the parliamentary bill pending in New Zealand that would not only ban sales to anyone born after 2008 but would also lower nicotine in cigarettes and reduce the number of retailers dramatically. People may also be aware that there is a bill pending in the Malaysian Parliament.
Malaysia’s bill is solely for TFG. The other major difference between the two bills? While both would criminalize the commercial sale of tobacco, Malaysia’s would create civil penalties for individual purchase and use (commercial selling would be a criminal offence). This is concerning and could have unintended consequences.
ASH’s Project Sunset – a campaign to phase out the sale of commercial tobacco products – is aimed solely at commercial sales. When a jurisdiction approaches us for technical support on a potential endgame policy, we insist that there be no penalties for purchase, use or possession (sometimes shortened to PUPs). The tobacco epidemic’s villain is the tobacco industry; their customers are victims of the industry’s ceaseless efforts to addict children to nicotine.
Which left us in a quandary: Should ASH support Malaysia’s efforts? We were not involved in the drafting of the bill, but we’ve spoken to the Malaysian Minister of Health, who was sympathetic to our stance. He pointed out that the fines for purchase or use are minimal – less than a parking ticket. No one will be arrested and there will be no criminal record. But still, the PUPs Principle has been a redline for ASH in the past.
So, should ASH support? It wasn’t an easy call. It would be simplest to stand on principle, as we have often done in the past. But if we don’t stand on principle, does that mean that we are throwing the principle out, or making an exception?
At our core, ASH’s mission is to save lives, and there is no doubt that a TFG law in Malaysia would save lives, probably many thousands, if not millions in the long run. In advocacy, we often talk about “the perfect being the enemy of the good.” We almost never get a law drafted in precisely the way we would have it. We must do our best to determine if the concessions are deal-breakers.
After much internal discussion, we signed the civil society support letter. We have made our reservations known to the Malaysian government, and in the future, we will continue to push against PUP laws and predicate our direct campaign assistance on adherence to the PUPs Principle. There is much more to like about Malaysia’s bill than to dislike, and it will continue global momentum toward a world without the death and disease caused by tobacco.