KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 24 — Malaysia’s Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) are among free-market think tanks globally that have received donations from tobacco companies and had opposed measures to curb smoking such as higher cigarette taxes, reports by UK daily Guardian has found.
The Guardian highlighted Ideas’ statements and work in objecting to the Malaysian government’s 2017 proposal to impose a hike in cigarette tax, in the latter’s bid to cut down on the death toll of over 27,200 Malaysians annually from smoking.
Malaysia’s then deputy health minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya had in March 2017 spoke of plans to increase the price of a pack of cigarettes from RM17 to RM21.50, with Guardian noting that experts had backed taxes as a proven measure to reduce smoking and smoking-related health problems and deaths.
But the-then Ideas executive director Wan Saiful Wan Jan had reportedly opposed the idea, saying that the proposed solution of higher taxes was “wrong because it will only encourage illegal activities without reducing the number of smokers”, with the argument that “one out of every two packs” of cigarettes in Malaysia is smuggled and a tax hike would boost the illicit trade.
The Guardian noted that the Malaysian government withdrew its proposal for higher cigarette taxes after 10 days, but said Ideas continued to speak up for months against the idea by issuing statements, opinion pieces and two reports which used tobacco firm-funded data to say taxes would intensify illegal trade.
How tobacco industry donations cloud debates over cigarette controls
Free-market thinktanks from Malaysia to Chile and Australia received funding from the industry alongside governments as they argued against tobacco controls.
Smoking kills more than 27,200 Malaysians every year.
In March 2017, Malaysia’s health ministry hoped to reduce that grim tally by floating a plan to sharply increase cigarettes taxes as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), and proposed by the deputy health minister, Dr Hilmi Yahaya, in the nation’s legislature.
But not everyone thought this was a good idea.
Opponents included a politically connected thinktank called the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), a partner of the Atlas Network, a global network of free-market advocacy groups based in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington DC.
Then executive director Wan Saiful Wan Jan warned that while the health department had “good intentions”, “their proposed solution is wrong because it will only encourage illegal activities without reducing the number of smokers”.
The thinktank accepted donations from Philip Morris Singapore, Philip Morris Malaysia and Japan Tobacco International alongside money from the American, British and Canadian governments, according to financial disclosures by the thinktank.
The proposal to increase taxes was dropped after just 10 days. But Ideas continued to advocate against tax hikes for months afterward, issuing statements, opinion pieces and two lengthy reports which used data paid for by tobacco companies to conclude taxes would fuel a black market.