ON the night of 29 May 2010, I was at Alexis Ampang in Kuala Lumpur for dinner and a performance by my colleague Shanon Shah. Curiously, after 10pm, the other patrons in the air-conditioned restaurant started lighting up. My friends, one of whom was a cancer survivor, complained to the restaurant. Didn’t the law stipulate that air-conditioned restaurants had to have smoke-free areas which were separate from smoking areas?
We were told, however, that Alexis Ampang’s policy was to allow smoking after 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays. We were perplexed, but stayed on because we wanted to support Shanon’s performance.
A few days after that incident, Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai announced that the government had decided to extend the ban on smoking to workplaces and offices with central air-conditioning. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be outraged. What, really, is the value of such government pronouncements if an earlier ban on smoking in public places had not even been effectively implemented?
Not just Alexis
After finding out that I was going to write about its rather curious smoking policy, Alexis Ampang apologised, saying, “The management at Alexis will take immediate steps to address this matter.” But what had stopped Alexis from “taking immediate steps” to follow the law in the interest of public health even before my friends and I turned up and complained?
To be certain, it’s not just Alexis that breaks the law about smoking with apparent impunity. On the night of 6 June, I experienced the same smoke-filled environment in No Black Tie, another reputable and well-known jazz club and restaurant. It wasn’t the first time and I doubt it will be the last time.
Our favourite Nyonya restaurant near our office also allows smoking in the air-conditioned area. And I remember shopping in Low Yat Plaza some years ago, after the earlier ban had been announced, and watching vendors and retailers puff away with no fear of being penalised for the public health hazard they posed.
But really, what is the value of these government pronouncements if it’s clear that there will be no or scant enforcement? After all, if there was enforcement, the likes of Alexis Ampang and No Black Tie would not be violating a government ban so blatantly; in Alexis’s case, so creatively, since there is no such thing as smoking being allowed after a certain time in a public space where smoking is banned.
“Health hazards from tobacco smoke are the same before 10pm and after 10pm,” Mary notes.
Serious or not?
So, is the government serious or not about ensuring public health? If it is, why is enforcement so lacking?
Enforcing the law is not impossible when it comes to banning smoking in public places. Try smoking in any British pub and see if you don’t get thrown out. Closer to the region, both Singapore and Thailand have a good track record for implementing smoke-free areas in public places. If other countries can do it, what’s stopping us?
It’s not impossible. All it takes is political will and clever strategies. Former Department of Environment director general Datuk Abu Bakar Jaafar once explained the strategy of enforcement to me. It would be impossible for government agencies to be everywhere all the time, he said.
But what the enforcers can do is nab violators with whatever resources they have, and to publicise these enforcement activities as frequently as possible. The fear of getting caught will alone be enough for people to follow the law.
Clearly, there isn’t enough fear of getting penalised when it comes to smoking in public spaces in Malaysia. And there isn’t enough fear because there isn’t enough enforcement.
It’s not just government enforcement that is lax. By international conventions, the Malaysian government has demonstrated how half-hearted it is about protecting public health from tobacco smoke, according to Mary.
Malaysia is actually in violation of Article 8 of the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which stipulates 100% smoke-free public and work places, adds Mary, who is also a board director for the Western Pacific Region of the Framework Convention Alliance. Malaysia ratified the FCTC in September 2005.
“However, the hospitality and the tobacco industries have managed to successfully lobby the Health Ministry to maintain smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants,” Mary says. “The tobacco industry persuaded restaurants to have ‘courtesy of choice’ by allowing smoking sections.”
And despite the overwhelming evidence and best practice that separating smoking from non-smoking sections does not work, she notes that the ministry would not be convinced about having 100% smoke-free public and work places.
Hence, in Malaysia, the law does not completely ban smoking in an air-conditioned restaurant. It is still allowed confined to a separated area. But if even this compromise position cannot be enforced by our government, what is the point of increasing the number of non-smoking public areas?
Not just smoking
Obviously, government malaise isn’t only apparent when it comes to smoking regulations. It’s a traffic violation to speak on one’s handphone without a hands-free kit. But how frequently have we all seen motorists turning a corner with one hand on the wheel with the other clutching a mobile phone?
The fear of getting caught for violating laws made for the public good is thinner than mountain air, that’s for certain.
And the reason for this? We have a government that occasionally announces good measures, but whose actions are often disconnected from its policy announcements. And all the announcements end up being nothing more than candy floss: sweet, but low in nutritional value – and oh, so transient.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns
The Nut Graph needs your support