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The Great Malaysian Smoke Screen: Retailers vs. The Invisible Cigarette Display Ban

It seems the Malaysian government has decided to play a bit of “hide and seek” with cigarettes and e-cigarettes, but unlike the game you fondly remember from your childhood, not everyone is having fun. Recently, a new policy has been rolled out that bans the display of these smoky treats in grocery stores, causing quite the uproar among the local merchants. Let’s dive into why this new regulation is lighting fires of discontent among the Federation of Grocery Merchants of Malaysia (FSGMAM).

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

The Malaysian government’s recent initiative to prohibit the display of cigarettes and e-cigarettes in retail stores aims to curb smoking rates by reducing the visibility of these products. While the intentions behind this policy are rooted in public health concerns, it has inadvertently stirred significant unrest among grocery store owners. Hong Zhiming, the chairman of the Federation of Grocery Merchants of Malaysia, equates this new regulation to asking merchants to perform complex tricks without the necessary tools. The requirement to hide tobacco products from plain sight implies not just a physical rearrangement of goods but also significant financial investments in new storage solutions. Such changes are expected to drive up operational costs, potentially eating into the narrow profit margins that many small and medium-sized retailers operate on.

The logistical challenges presented by this new policy are not trivial. Store owners must now rethink their interior layouts and possibly invest in additional infrastructure to comply with the new regulations. This reconfiguration could be as challenging and intricate as trying to neatly pack away leftovers in an already full refrigerator post-Thanksgiving—a task that anyone who has hosted a holiday meal can sympathize with. This upheaval is expected to not only disrupt the day-to-day operations of these businesses but also impose an unwelcome financial strain. As a result, many store owners are voicing their frustrations, worried that these new burdens might smoke out some of the profitability they depend on to keep their doors open. Meanwhile, the intended public health benefits of the policy hang in the balance, contingent on its effective implementation and the compliance of the very retailers it affects.

The Black Market Boogie

Hong Zhiming, chairman of the Federation of Grocery Merchants of Malaysia, highlights a critical issue overshadowing the government’s new cigarette display ban: the thriving black market for cigarettes. He argues that the real problem fueling persistent smoking rates in Malaysia isn’t the availability of cigarettes in retail stores but the rampant, unchecked sale of illegal cigarettes that are both affordable and easy to access. This perspective sheds light on a larger issue that simply hiding cigarettes behind counters won’t solve. Zhiming’s concerns suggest that the new policy might inadvertently boost illegal cigarette sales, as these products will remain easier and cheaper to obtain compared to their legally sold counterparts.

The fear among merchants like Zhiming is that the government’s initiative, though well-intentioned, may resemble the days of alcohol prohibition, creating a modern “prohibition era” for nicotine. By making legal cigarettes less accessible through legitimate channels, there’s a risk that smokers may turn to illicit sources, potentially giving rise to a network of “smoke-easies” where illegal cigarettes could be bought and sold with ease. This scenario would not only counteract the goals of the public health policy but also place legal retailers at a disadvantage, complicating their compliance efforts and impacting their business viability in an already challenging market.

Dialogue or Monologue?

Despite their eagerness to clear the air, the FSGMAM seems to be talking to a wall. Their efforts to initiate a dialogue with the Ministry of Health have so far been met with silence – not one, but two letters have gone unanswered. Hong Zhiming emphasizes that as primary stakeholders, retailers should be part of the conversation, not just an afterthought. “Retailers, as the most direct stakeholders of this regulation, should receive detailed implementation details instead of being kept in the dark,” he insists.

This lack of communication doesn’t just put the merchants in a tough spot; it stirs up more uncertainty and anxiety. It’s like planning a party and not knowing if your guests will show up or even like the theme. The retailers are ready to party, or at least talk, but the government needs to RSVP!

A Call for Balance

In a heartfelt plea, Hong Zhiming isn’t just blowing rings of smoke; he’s asking for a balanced approach to the situation. Recognizing the potential health benefits of such regulations, he’s not throwing the cigarette pack out with the display case but seeking a middle ground. “We would like to make it clear that retailers are not opposed to these regulations, but they must be reasonable,” he clarifies.

The federation’s stance is clear: regulations should not only be effective but also equitable. This balancing act is crucial in ensuring that while public health is safeguarded, the livelihoods dependent on these sales aren’t snuffed out. After all, no one wants a policy that adds fuel to a different kind of fire – economic distress.


The Federation of Grocery Merchants of Malaysia (FSGMAM) is voicing strong opposition against a new government policy that bans the display of cigarettes and e-cigarettes in grocery stores. The federation’s chairman, Hong Zhiming, argues that this rule will impose significant financial burdens on merchants, complicating their operations by forcing them to reconfigure their store layouts and possibly invest in new storage solutions. Additionally, Zhiming raises concerns about the rise of the black market, suggesting that hiding legal products might inadvertently boost illegal cigarette sales, which are already problematic due to their affordability and accessibility. Despite attempts to engage with the Ministry of Health, the federation has yet to receive a response, leaving them in limbo without clear guidelines on how to implement these changes. The federation is not against the regulation in principle but is calling for a more balanced, reasonable approach that considers the economic impact on retailers while aiming to achieve public health goals. The outcome of this conflict remains uncertain, as the industry awaits a response from the government.

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