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Be bold enough to enforce the fatwa against smoking

The New Straits Times, March 24, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

THE newspaper USA Today reported this month that for all Americans born after 1951 "all organs and tissues of the body have received some radiation exposure" (NST, March 19). The study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly everyone who lived in US since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout that could eventually be responsible for more than 11,000 cancer deaths. Although this figure may be speculative, it is sufficient to raise concern as the incident seemingly is not limited to the United States only. All nations would have received the radioactivity, according to CDC, though no estimate was given.

Death due to nuclear fallout somehow gives everyone a chill in the spine. On the other hand, death due to fallout caused by smoking, lacks the chilling effect, even though the number of deaths is equally large and the future looks even more frightening. In Malaysia, the sense of urgency is missing. One would expect otherwise, since like nuclear fallouts, the long-term and fatal effects of smoking, such as cancers, are almost certain. The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) recently acknowledged that "smoking is becoming an epidemic in Malaysia with more than 10,000 people dying from smoking related diseases every year" (NST, March 18). More alarming still is that "the number of smokers among teenagers is also increasing each year", with the number of females picking the dirty habit on the rise.

Health Ministry statistics show that female smokers below 18 rose from five per cent of the total number of smokers in 1996 to eight per cent in 2000. More alarming still, they will make up a projected 10 per cent of the total adult women smokers in Malaysia by 2025 (The Sun, March 4). Currently, there are more than 3.5 million smokers in the country.

That the increase is due to strategic targeting by the tobacco industry can be confirmed from many sources. A business analyst noted that the re-launching of a cigarette brand in 2001 "proved to be a success, as the younger target segment identified by the company (British American Tobacco) has helped to increase the brand's share to 1.3 per cent of the total duty-paid local cigarette market." Many other brands are said to follow a similar strategy and as a result, the company's pre-tax profit is expected to jump 20 per cent to RM840.3 million for the financial year 2001, from RM 701.2 million the year before (Star, Feb 23). Such an attractive forecast will no doubt attract more investors and further fuel the spread of the prevailing smoking epidemic.

Clearly our lackadaisical and compromising actions continue to waste a lot of lives. A good case in the point is the lack of implementation of the fatwa against smoking that has been raised by the MMA of late (March 18). This, of course, is not a new issue. In fact, as of yesterday, March 23, it was precisely seven years ago that the National Fatwa Council issued the fatwa. Seven years of lost time and opportunities to demonstrate how progressive Islam is in dealing with issues as complex as that of smoking. It also represents wasted chances to reinforce the teaching of Islam that the human body is sacred and must not be soiled and endangered in any way, more so through deliberately harmful activities like smoking and drug abuse. The fatwa indeed could have been an effective strategy in getting the Muslim community to cleanse itself.

Unfortunately, this did not happen. At the highest political and religious levels in the various States, people are still unsure about the dangers of smoking. Some are still in a state of denial, claiming that smoking is as harmless as eating onions! Ironically, the British executive chairman of the world's second biggest cigarette maker, is more forthright. Recently, he was quoted in The Times as saying: "I think there are health risks attached to smoking" and thus made a personal decision not to smoke based on the fear of smoking-related diseases. Our leaders, therefore, would do well to listen to this statement and try to save the population from preventable mortality. If not for themselves and their generations, at least consider the future generations.

There can be no doubt that the 1995 fatwa is the right step to take, when it declared smoking as haram and not just makruh as previously understood. Right now we need to be frank and honest in admitting the dangers of smoking, and more importantly be bold enough to enforce the fatwa as a follow-up to such an admission. The MMA has indicated this in its attempt to see that the fatwa is implemented. It is about time the nation lent its whole-hearted support to this gallant effort.

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