Anti-tobacco advocates have for years pushed for a “tobacco endgame”, where young people will be banned from ever buying cigarettes in their lifetimes. New Zealand got the ball rolling when it announced its intention to gradually raise the minimum smoking age, so that it would be illegal for anyone born after 2008 to buy cigarettes. Singapore said New Zealand’s proposal was “attractive”, while Malaysia said it was mulling a plan to ban the sale of tobacco products to people born after 2005. In the first report of a three-part series , This Week in Asia takes a look at discussions on kicking the habit in Malaysia, India and the Philippines. Read part two here and part three here . Smokers in Malaysia often trace their deadly habit back to their childhood. Retired banker Tengku Zul took up smoking while spending time with his grandparents in rural Kelantan state, where it was common for people to smoke tobacco rolled in dried palm leaves. Having grown up around smokers, he found it easy to say “yes” when he was handed his first stick – a menthol cigarette from a brand that no longer exists – by a friend at age 13. Tengku Zul, now 60, said his habit quickly picked up pace and soon he was smoking up to three packs every two days. At age 39, he underwent angioplasty to widen his smoke-damaged arteries. His family sold their car and had to rely on the generosity of relatives to fund the operation. “I used to joke that the only way to stop smoking is to get lung cancer,” he said. That was before his father-in-law – himself a longtime smoker – died from the disease. “I quit the day I went for my first angioplasty,” Tengku Zul recalled. Since late January, many Malaysian smokers have taken to social media to pour their hearts out about their deadly habit. Some have shared their regrets at picking up the habit and their many failed attempts to kick it. Prompting this outpouring was a speech by Minister of Health Khairy Jamaluddin at a World Health Organization meeting in Geneva. Addressing the UN body’s executive board on January 27, the minister revealed the country’s plans to “bring about a generational end game” to smoking. The plan, he said, was to ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone born after 2005 – people who turn 17 this year and everyone younger. “Malaysia feels this will have a significant impact in preventing and controlling non-communicable diseases,” he said. Khairy’s comments came months after New Zealand said it would begin raising the legal smoking age every year from 2027, effectively banning the sale of tobacco to anyone born after 2008. Malaysia’s tough new anti-smoking laws provoke fierce backlash Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, Singapore’s health ministry has said it is open to imposing a similar ban, describing New Zealand’s proposal as “attractive”. Farther afield, Denmark is considering a ban on nicotine products for anyone born after 2010. In Malaysia, despite Khairy’s remarks and support from ex-smokers such as Tengku Zul, the proposal has angered large swathes of the population who remain addicted to tobacco. Government figures suggest that over 20 per cent of adults in the country, population 32 million, are smokers and that almost half of all males light up. Meanwhile, a report by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control found that 31 per cent of non-smokers in Malaysia had reported exposure to second-hand smoke at home while 27 per cent had reported exposure at work. Such figures are despite legislation from 1995 that bars the depiction of cigarette packaging in advertisements, and a blanket ban on all tobacco advertisements from 2003. The debate that followed those earlier pieces of legislation offers a snapshot of how divisive the proposed ban – expected to be tabled in parliament in July – is likely to be. ‘How about we ban cycling?’ Zaid Ibrahim, a former law minister and cigar aficionado, gained plaudits from smokers when he responded on Twitter to Khairy’s remarks: “How about we ban cycling? Good or bad is irrelevant. It’s about choice.” Public health workers swiftly criticised the ex-minister’s remarks. Khoo Yoong Khean, managing editor of the Malaysian Medical Gazette, said the ex-minister had ignored the impact of second-hand smoke. “It becomes more than a personal choice, it’s also a public health matter,” Khoo said. “Good or bad is very relevant.” But the ex-minister is far from alone in resisting the proposed ban. The Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MICCI), apparently echoing the concerns of Big Tobacco, described Khairy’s plan as a “knee-jerk reaction” that could encourage “black market nicotine”. It said previous efforts to reduce smoking by increasing import duties had only boosted business for vendors selling illicit products. Fewer smokers equates to fewer people with lung issues Harris Zainul Other sceptics say given there is already a law banning smoking in restaurants that the government struggles to enforce, any further ban linked to age would be futile. “I foresee shops will still have the ‘tak apa’ [I don’t care] attitude and sell the cigarettes anyway,” said writer and comedian Shamaine Othman. Harris Zainul, an analyst from the Institute Of Strategic & International Studies Malaysia, acknowledged the concerns but said the solution lay in better enforcement rather than abandoning the policy. “A loss of sin tax can be made up by a decrease in health care spending. Fewer smokers equates to fewer people with lung issues,” Harris said. Malaysia collects around 3.9 billion Malaysian ringgit (US$930 million) in sin tax from tobacco products. However, Khoo Yoong Khean said this figure should not be used to justify smoking, as the habit was projected to cost Malaysians 7.4 billion ringgit in health care costs in 2025 and over the long run amounted to 275.3 billion ringgit in lost productivity. Vaping clouds the issue The new law will also cover the increasingly popular pastime of vaping. In 2016, there were 600,000 vapers in Malaysia; by 2019 there were 1.1 million. A group of 62 anti-smoking NGOs has described the popularity of vaping as a stumbling block in the “end game” for tobacco usage. The group, which includes the National Cancer Society of Malaysia and the Malaysian Medical Association, has argued that banning all cigarette-like products is essential to tackle a misconception that vapes and e-cigarettes are less harmful. Recent research by the National University of Malaysia found the number of teenagers who vape outnumbered those who smoke conventional cigarettes by 42 per cent to 27 per cent, with most vapers coming from low income households earning less than US$1,000 a month. Hong Kong principals demand full e-cigarettes ban after under-10s seen smoking The MICCI hopes Malaysia will allow alternative tobacco products rather than impose a blanket ban. “Even New Zealand, which the health ministry is proposing to emulate, embraced and encouraged alternative products,” MICCI executive director Shaun Cheah said. Public health groups such as the American Heart Association say these products deliver much higher concentrations of nicotine than traditional cigarettes, with some liquid pods containing as much nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes. For now, all eyes in Malaysia will be on whether Khairy’s plan comes to fruition. The minister, after receiving a petition from the 62 anti-smoking groups, indicated he was moving ahead with the proposed legislation. “God willing, the bill will be tabled in July and get bipartisan support,” he said.