Malaysia has recently extended online sales and promotion bans to the cigar and non-cigarette industry. Cigarette advertising and promotion has been banned in Malaysia since 1995, while an update in 2004, gazetted as the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations under the Food Act, saw the ban encompass all tobacco products and included online forms of promotion.
“Since the focus of these bans was always on cigarettes, cigar (and pipe and shisha) companies were not informed of this update and there was zero government enforcement on the non-cigarette sector,” says Kevin Shah, Director of La Casa del Habano Kuala Lumpur. “With increased internet connectivity of the masses and the growing trend of social media, this law was amended in 2015 to also ban all online sales.”
“Again, this was not communicated to the cigar companies, and it came as a shock when the Ministry of Health organised a Zoom session this year with most of the cigar industry players after the Ministry had received reports of cigar companies selling cigars online.”
During this online meeting, the Ministry made it clear to the industry that tobacco sales, promotions and advertising is illegal in Malaysia, even online. While he can agree and has been compliant in regard to offline sales, promotions, and advertising, Shah believes that to put online and social media curbs in place is illogical.
“There is so much freedom on the internet, companies outside of Malaysia will continue to promote and sell online, giving Malaysian companies a severe disadvantage. This will also result in Malaysian money leaving Malaysia and going into the hands of foreign retailers. So Malaysian cigar companies are going to make less money and Malaysian money will leave Malaysia – a double whammy for Malaysia.”
Shah also notes it also creates a gaping loophole in which a Malaysian company could register as a foreign entity with a foreign based online store and still be able to advertise and promote online to Malaysians. With social media, indirect promotion methods can easily be set up. An influencer or even a fake account can say that they bought cigar “A” from retailer “B” at price “C” on behalf of the retailer on social media. The authorities would either never see the post if they don’t follow the influencer or be unable to do anything about it if it is a fake account. The retailer can deny involvement as they obviously can’t control what their customers post on their own social media, said Shah.
“Short of trying to create a mirror image of the Great Firewall of China, which most people are still able to bypass, in Malaysia and censor all mention of any tobacco keywords, trying to curb online freedom is just highly impractical,” says Shah.