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."
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