Malaysia's tough new restrictions on public smoking provoke fierce backlash

A government-imposed smoking ban at eateries and restaurants in Malaysia has prompted a nationwide backlash, with reports of violence and threats of lawsuits coming from smokers, who make up nearly a quarter of the population.

The mandatory ban was announced on New Year's Day and applied to all restaurants and cafes as well as the nation's open-air street food stalls and hawker centres - a dramatic change from previous laissez-faire attitudes about lighting up in public. Smokers in Malaysia may now only light up three metres away from the premises and those caught smoking in public face fines of 10,000 ringgit (US$2,400). Restaurants must prominently display smoking ban signs and can be fined for failing to uphold the ban.

The ban provoked outrage among smokers and protests have been reported throughout the country: a group calling for "smokers' rights" has pledged to challenge the ban via judicial review, naming the Health Ministry as sole respondent. Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, the health minister, responded by saying the government was more than happy to tackle the matter in court as Malaysia was "a democratic country".

Last week, an irate smoker assaulted an Indian migrant worker after being asked to put out his cigarette in an open-air mamak eatery. A police report was filed. Meanwhile, tongue-in-cheek photos and videos of smokers bringing measuring tape to eateries with them to precisely mark off three metres before lighting up have been circulating on social media.

The Health Ministry, which also runs a programme to help smokers quit, has given cigarette users a six-month grace period, in which there will be warnings but no fines. The Housing and Local Government Ministry said it will consider designated smoking areas.

Malaysian media has reported nightclubs and bars - even air-conditioned indoor venues previously allowed smoking - are claiming a loss in revenue but some bars see the upside. Franky Murray oversees public relations at Sid's, a popular pub chain. He claims the smoking ban has helped customers forge connections.

"People have been very OK," he said. "Only two people out of hundreds of smokers have made any kind of noise. Some people are making new friends as they gather outside. It's quite cool actually. People who would not normally meet as they are not moving around [in the pub] are now moving around, meeting people from other tables outside the bars. And even as a smoker, I'm enjoying it. I may even get a suntan."

Muhammad Sha'ani Abdullah, Federation of Malaysian Consumer Associations coordinator of the Tobacco Control Initiative, criticised the outcry.

"Most consumers are not angry," he said. "Smokers are a small amount of the population - 23.8 per cent of Malaysians are smokers, so the majority still do not smoke. Nobody can argue that smoking is bad for one's health. More people die of tobacco-related diseases and illnesses than in road accidents, so it's a basic issue of health and safety concerns in a public place.

"Laws previously outlawed smoking in five foot ways and under roofs, but they were not enforced. Signs indicating which areas are non-smoking must be more visible. Restaurant owners must be educated on their rights to deny service to those breaking the law and how to handle irate customers. There will be a period of adjustment, but ultimately smoking is not a right. A right cannot infringe on other's rights, such as the right to health and clean air. Therefore smoking is not a right."

However, some have come to the defence of smokers. Former prime minister Najib Razak, who was ousted in the elections last year and is now on trial for multiple charges of corruption, called the ban "draconian and unfair".

"Even on the five-footway [sheltered walkway], smoking is not allowed," Najib said. "If smoking on five-footway is prohibited, can people only smoke in the middle of the road and wait to be run over by a bus?"

This is not Malaysia's first attempt to toughen anti-smoking laws. In 2011, heritage city Melaka banned smokers in an attempt to increase tourist numbers. Three years later, the government banned smoking at highway rest stops although this was not enforced and smokers largely ignored the new rules.

The Health Ministry is also considering extending the smoking ban to universities and schools, although universities have long been gazetted as no-smoking zones. The government has repeatedly increased the excise duty on cigarettes, hoping to deter smokers; this propelled the illegal cigarette trade.

In tightening smoking restrictions, Malaysia has sought to catch up with neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Thailand, although they did not endure anywhere near the backlash of Malaysia. On the day Malaysia's smoking ban came into effect, Singapore imposed a blanket smoke-free ruling on popular tourist spot Orchard Road, removing smoking corners in eateries and allowing lighting up only in designated spots in an attempt to tackle pollution levels. In stark contrast to Malaysia, the Orchard Road ban was met peacefully and with little protest, in keeping with the city state's trademark acquiescence to rules.

In Malaysia, however, the struggle may be uphill: restaurant owner associations insist more time is needed for full compliance. So far, the government has stuck to its guns on the dangers of lighting up, mobilising 5,000 officers to enforce the ban. Despite repeated questioning, Health Minister Dzulkefly remained determined to stamp out the habit for good.

"We won't backtrack," he told Malaysian media. "Let's see who is going to ensure the cleanliness of our air and defend the elderly and children in public places."

This article was published in South China Morning Post.