Anti-harm policies are anti-working class.
Updated: Feb 10
In an ideal world, the average working adults in Malaysia would have healthy working culture, an active lifestyle, and good eight hours of sleep but in the state that we are living in, our reality is nowhere near the ideal life.
If anything, we are getting increasingly further from it. With inflation and the growing uncertainties for the future, the pressure on our mental health is also increasing. More and more Malaysians are also forced to take up extra work hours.
Even worse, the nature of the jobs available to those who need it the most are often work that is repetitious, monotonous and lacks variety.
P-hailing riders, bus, and lorry drivers for instance, have to spend long hours on the road on daily basis just to earn a living income. External stimuli are sometimes then needed by these workers to stay attentive to their work.
According to a study on impact of job stress on smoking, stress itself presents physiological and psychological challenges to the body and individuals respond by self-medicating, through smoking, to maintain homeostasis.
This is not even a new problem so it should not come as a surprise when individuals resort to consumption of harmful products as a way to cope with the lifestyle that they have to face.
Therefore, to impose tough-on-harm policies is rather elitist and that shows clear detachment from understanding the challenges and pressure faced by the working class.
For instance, high taxation on cigarettes would force them to look at the illegal market to fulfil their needs. Where the products are much worse due to the absence of regulations and compliance with safety standards.
In 2020, there was a dramatic increase of illicit cigarettes consumption from 52.3% in 2016 to 63.8% as reported in an illicit cigarettes study in Malaysia.
Punishments can be weakly effective, however punishing individuals for tobacco consumption through taxation carries the unacceptable side-effect of disproportionately further burdening the poor.
The demonization of tobacco consumption as social illness disregards the fact that nicotine addiction is a real disorder that needs to be handled with well thought out policies and empathy.
Taxation and a blanket ban therefore cannot be a stand-alone approach. It must be complemented with harm reduction policies that could provide and regulate safer alternatives for the working class to slowly transition towards a tobacco free future.
This looks like regulating vaping and alternative tobacco product devices that has shown promising prospects of reducing harm. For example, a heated tobacco device produces an average of 90%-95% reduction in the levels of harmful chemicals than a combustible cigarette. The potential these new devices hold as the better alternative must be recognized and made accessible to tobacco consumers.
They are not free of harm, but they take us a lot closer to the tobacco-free future we want. More than any other moral policing approaches could.
Therefore, the Government must start looking at how to deal with Malaysia’s harmful product consumption from the harm reduction lens. The solution must be multidimensional and free from prejudice towards the consumers.
All in all, policies that are not rooted in empathy and understanding of the issue should not force individuals from the working class to make pure moral decision. That in itself is immoral.
*This article is written by Cellini Basri, Head of External Relations at Bait Al Amanah