Some Observations on the Smoking Culture In Malaysia

In a harsh world of realism, the dilemma of the smoking culture in Malaysia is a reflection of the greater problems. It’s time for us to think outside the box and address the root cause.

Photo by Lê Tit on Unsplash

The cigarette is a tainted, manipulative wisp of paper that entices you with its sweetness, but poisons you with its filth. Though it has been a part of the lives of everyone, it has also been a cause of death in the lives of many. Desires to quit smoking have risen due to the numerous health issues, but with the supply dropping because of the government’s regulations, it has become harder than ever to quit. Thus, contraband cigarettes are the easiest way to smoke your troubles away here in Malaysia.

Bluntly, smoking is a well-known health hazard that cuts down the average lifespan by about 10 years. And yet, it is addiction that draws in the masses. When under stress, some drink alcohol for its intoxicating effects, while others puff on cancer sticks for a hit of nicotine to eliminate the problem. If this is true, then both are merely escapists, trying to escape from reality. And yet, perhaps there is more to smoking cigarettes than mere addiction.

The cigarette, as it sits in the ashtray, glistens from the light of the sconce. Smoke wafts from it like a ghost trying to break free from its shackles. Smoke is a symbol of freedom, for it is the reason why smoking was permitted in areas of tyranny and why smoking was called a habit. The habit has survived for centuries. It has inspired poets, artists, thinkers, and even philosophers. Every great legend that came before held a cigarette in their hands. Because of that symbol of freedom in a cage, people had pouches designed to hold cigarettes. Some would even allow you to play an instrument while still holding it. It wasn’t just when they were found in the company of greats that cigarettes were regarded with pride. In fact, Winston Churchill once noted that smoking was a good habit for any diplomat to have. The cigarette was more than just a good habit. It brought people together.

The butt of the cigarette is a smouldering ember — as beautiful as it is deadly. It is a symbol of power and prosperity, yet we cannot help but hate it for what it does to our bodies.

What is it about this little cylinder of flesh-destroying chemical power? What is so addictive?

Have you ever walked into a room and caught a whiff of cigarette smoke? The smell itself is toxic. There is nothing pleasant about second-hand smoke, yet when we smoke it ourselves, we deny it.

The first reason that comes to mind is that the cigarette is a symbol of rebellion. Since the dawn of time, man has felt a primal urge to separate himself from the common herd. The teenager with the backwards hat, despite the disapproving looks from his peers, stands out from the crowd as an individual. He is held with a certain level of self-respect and dignity because he is brazenly different. Ultimately, it seems that this drive to separate oneself from the rest of the world is what pushes most people to choose to smoke.

What delights me most about this topic is how infinitesimal the difference between a smoker and a non-smoker is. It’s only missing a cigarette. Truly, all you need to do is not smoke, and you won’t become a smoker. But if that’s really all there is, then why are we here right now?

Those who bark out that smoking leads to cancer, halitosis, and death, and that burning sticks of leaves devolve gentle songs into bellowing cries of agony, only do so to expunge their guilt. Not you, but them.

I believe it speaks to the deepest, most primal part of our soul, that desperate need for a release and reprieve from the trials and tribulations of life. Our own personal Hades, one might say.

How does this apply to the anti-smoking argument? Well, think about it: do we even take the anti-smoking warnings to heart? Or do we continue to smoke regardless of the warnings and continue to harm our health? If it was really about our health, we wouldn’t be smoking.

On this, I differ with the cynic — the notion that the two sides are so different that there can be no agreement. There is passion on both sides, unthinking passion. The anti-smoking side feels strongly about the safety of others, and the pro-smoking side is full of an individual’s worth to determine his own fate.

However, neither is correct. The reality is that both sides are deeply entrenched in a moral grey area. Let’s start with the anti-smoking side first.

Health is only a means to capture freedom. True enough, smoking isn’t conducive to a long life, but the heart of the matter is that people should be free to live as they like. Those who seek to curtail such things may be sincere, but it does not change the fact that, in truth, it is an assault against another’s liberty.

On one hand, the pro-smoking forces are blinded by their own vices. They willfully disregard the well-being of their comrades and loved ones. Though it is their right to smoke in a public place, they are inconsiderate and riddled with selfishness, not heeding the feelings of those who wish to remain sheltered from the pollution of their own choosing.

Thus, it is evident that neither side has a true reason for war. This is simply a question of freedom or safety. In the end, we must all decide which we would prefer.

While our views may differ on this issue, there is a means to appease all of us.

First and foremost, stop trying to force your will upon others. You are free to boycott smokers, and you are free to impose your beliefs about what makes people healthy on others. The moment you turn away from freedom and begin to use force to make others live how you see fit, is the moment your soul has been stained with the black ink of the tyrant.

And smokers, although it is good to have separation from non-smokers, it is not right to infringe on their rights also. If they ask you to sit in another area because they choose not to be around you and your habit, then it is your obligation to abide without argument. Decency and the right to choose are key here. Also, consider the rights of everyone, including children who cannot help but be around you. They do not deserve to breathe in your second-hand smoke.

Second of all, we should be less dogmatic about our divisions. The fight against second-hand smoke has been a red herring, because the real issue is classism. Nowadays, it is thought that smoking is for lower-class people. It is seen as disgusting, uncouth, and offensive to the senses. But it does not have to be this way.

To everyone, rich or poor, your health should be your first concern. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know the statistics, but studies have shown that smoking is bad for your health. Why then, do they choose to do it despite the risks? Should we really judge them?

And, as it has been mentioned before, classism is a blight upon the heart of this country. Just because someone inhales the artificial scent of nicotine exhaled from the imitation cigarette rather than the real nicotine that flows through its thousand-dollar tubes, doesn’t mean they are a filthy degenerate. Maybe they can’t afford to smoke the real thing, or maybe they just don’t give a fuck and smoke because it feels good to their dilapidated heart, despite being poor. Either way, we shouldn’t be ridiculing them just because of their smoking habits.

Life is the sum of all our choices. And as human beings, we should have the freedom to choose what’s right for us. As long as it isn’t endangering others, let us all have our vices.

You may ask why I handle this subject in such a manner when others write on it so frivolously. Consider this: what meaning of “rights” do we have if we do not commit ourselves to those rights? How can we talk about the value of a “right” if we do not respect that right in the first place?

In a nation where hero worship of a select few is common, we the people are meant to be free.

The toxicity of the nicotine within a cigarette enshrouds the mind and numbs the tongue. The destructive habit, which will eventually kill its user, holds no relief for life’s woes and instead creates new ones. The original comfort becomes a plane of existence that is completely removed from reality. And do you know what? Smokers know it too.

I pray that someday, people will be free from the chains of nicotine. They will no longer be slaves to a habit that is slowly killing them. But only when they break their own chains.

In life, we call out for help silently. Many of us want to take control of our own lives again and try to find the happiness that we thought was lost to us. The problem of smoking can’t be solved by stomping out the cigarettes. It has to start from within; we have to want it. We have to want change. It all starts with you and me.

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Fayyadh Jaafar

Fayyadh Jaafar

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Business writer at The Malaysian Reserve. I write other things here too, you know.