KUALA LUMPUR - The Health Ministry aims to have in place an anti-obesity law by 2020. Health director-general Datuk Dr Hasan Abdul Rahman (right) said a later date was feasible as a push for immediate legislation on the matter would prove to be controversial.
Acknowledging that the country was not ready for such a law anytime soon, he said the ministry would prepare the public to accept it through education and awareness campaigns.
Such a law, he believed, would help reduce the high obesity rate and the occurrence of related diseases.
"When one is overweight or obese, the risk of contracting diabetes, heart attack, high blood pressure and even cancer is higher," he told the New Straits Times.
"The anti-obesity law would be a good way of promoting healthier workers and a healthier nation.
"With an ideal weight, the risk of sickness and disease would be reduced, thus improving work quality and reducing money spent on treatment."
The National Health Morbidity Survey 2006 found that 43.1 per cent of the adult population were overweight, with 14 per cent of them obese.
The survey indicated that nearly 90 per cent of adults had one or more diseases as a result of being overweight; 20.6 per cent had high cholesterol; 32.2 per cent high blood pressure; and 14.9 per cent diabetes.
The proposed law would most likely be modelled after Japan's national anti-obesity law which came into effect in 2008.
Its provisions include measuring the waistlines of employees between the ages of 40 and 74 as part of their annual medical check-up.
A company faces stiff penalties if its employees' waistlines exceed 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women.
Employees who fail to reduce their waistline would have to undergo counselling, while the employer would have to contribute to a healthcare programme for the elderly.
Dr Hasan said such a law would not be discriminative in nature against those who were overweight but was meant to ensure that employees valued their health and adopted a healthy lifestyle.
In an immediate reaction, Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Shamsuddin Bardan (right) described the proposed law as "ridiculous".
He said obesity was a matter of individual lifestyle and employees should take responsibility for their own health instead of passing on the burden to employers.
"Employers should not have to bear the cost," he said.
Shamsuddin argued that the nation did not need a law to create a healthier lifestyle. If any laws were to be introduced, they should focus on the safety of food and produce.
He said if the anti-obesity law was introduced, employees might be more tempted to keep unhealthy diets as they would know that their employers would be taking care of it.
Rudy Foo, managing director of food outlet Madam Kwan's, said the introduction of such legislation was a good idea as it would keep workers fit.
"Having healthier staff would mean better productivity. This initiative would help employees to be fit in the long term."
Commenting on the possibility of companies discriminating against overweight people when hiring, Foo said his company's policy on recruitment was based on competency and not weight.
However, he said, if an anti-obesity law was implemented, the onus would be on employees to convince the company hiring them that it would be a win-win situation.
"If we, as employers, have to pay for an employee's weight loss programme, we are adding value to their life.
"In return, they must show us they are ready for change and willing to get healthier."