The legislatures of Malaysia and New Zealand are considering measures to ban people born after a certain date from ever legally smoking tobacco. Might such bans have unintended consequences? Photo: dpa
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

Malaysia and New Zealand’s tobacco ban push recalls Chinese opium smoking prohibitions – and their unintended consequences

  • Lawmakers in Malaysia and New Zealand are debating radical proposals to end tobacco use. Critics say they could foster smuggling and drive smoking underground
  • China’s Qing dynasty tried repeatedly to ban opium smoking, but smuggling rose, sparking a crisis that led to wars and the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain

Lawmakers in New Zealand and Malaysia are leading the rest of the world in considering the implementation of the so-called “generational endgame” for tobacco, whose ultimate goal is to stub out smoking in their countries once and for all.

Under the proposed laws, which are currently being debated by the legislative bodies of both countries, all persons born after a certain year, say 2007, will never be able to buy, consume or even possess tobacco products.

Hence, the argument goes, today’s teenagers and those who come after them in both countries will never legally smoke a cigarette again.

The harmful effects of tobacco smoking are well documented, and luridly illustrated on most cigarette packaging, and no lawmaker can say, hand on heart, that they are against the proposal in principle. However, many have said on record that such legislation may result in increased smuggling and drive tobacco use underground.

Cigarette packaging in New Zealand already carries graphic warnings about its possible consequences. Photo: The New Zealand Ministry of Health

The same argument was put forward almost 200 years ago in China, not over tobacco but the even more serious scourge of opium.

The Chinese had been smoking opium since the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when the Portuguese brought it to China from the Indian subcontinent.

By the first half of the 19th century, widespread opium addiction had become a serious problem, fuelled in large part by the British, who sold large quantities of opium to the Chinese to offset Britain’s trade deficit with China, a self-sufficient economy which needed very little from industrialised Britain except opium.

The British public and government were aware of the debilitating effects of opium addiction, but their nation’s fiscal health was far more important than the physical health of a strange people on the other side of the world.

There was huge demand, after all, and they had ample supply. This was free-market economics at its most cynical and unscrupulous.

Opium smoking in China began when Portuguese traders brought supplies of the drug from India. Photo: Getty Images

In China, the government of the Qing dynasty’s Daoguang Emperor, who began his reign in 1820, tried banning opium multiple times, but each time triggered an exponential increase in opium smuggling because of rampant corruption among Chinese officials.

British and Chinese peddlers of the narcotic went on supplying opium to Chinese users, whose numbers continued to rise.

By the early 1830s, there were proposals within the Qing government to rescind its ban on opium. Seeing how the morally driven policy had become counterproductive in its application, proponents of an alternative policy sought to mitigate the harmful effects of imported opium by three measures.

The first was, counterintuitively, to allow the import of opium, but to classify it as a medicine and levy the necessary taxes. Imported opium would not be paid for in silver but in the form of other goods, which would lower its market price and prevent the outflow of silver from China.

The second measure was to ban opium smoking among government officials, soldiers and the educated classes, but not among the commoners.

Lastly, they proposed allowing the domestic cultivation of the opium poppy to reduce dependence on imports.

An illustration of British and Chinese soldiers fighting during a battle in the first opium war, sparked when China sought to ban opium use and destroyed imported stock. Photo: Getty Images

This moderate but flawed proposal shocked the prohibitionists, who had been single-minded in eradicating opium for years. The prohibitionists and proponents of rescinding the opium ban argued their positions before the emperor and in the end, Daoguang favoured the former, in particular the arguments put forth by one Lin Zexu.

Armed with Daoguang’s authorisation, Lin began his famous campaign in early 1839 to rid China of opium, culminating in the destruction in June that year of approximately 1,000 tonnes of confiscated opium at Humen, some 60km (35 miles) northwest of Hong Kong.

Even more famous was the British response to this and subsequent anti-opium campaigns in the form of the two so-called opium wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860), among whose outcomes was the birth of modern Hong Kong.