• 2023
  • How Heroin Smuggling Is Impacted By Dubious Nicotine Delisting Issue

How Heroin Smuggling Is Impacted By Dubious Nicotine Delisting Issue

Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak 
May 17, 2023  


Of late, a report on the seizure of heroin worth RM789.56mil that possibly went through Port Klang to Brisbane, does not augur well for Malaysia. It is said to be one of the largest of such seizures in recent time; the second largest of its kind in Australian history. 

According to the Penang Customs Department: “Based on initial information received, the drugs came from the Golden Triangle (an area covering parts of Myanmar, China, Laos and Thailand).”

Malaysia has always been a “favourite” transit location for the drugs of abuse for a long time. This complicates the long-standing battle against the declared number one enemy since some 50 years ago, and counting. 

"I was still a student volunteer then acting as a member of a research team at the Drug Research Centre, Universiti Sains Malaysia. The issue of drug smuggling was already a complex one given the location and long coastline exposed to the smugglers and traffickers alike. 

Still, to read about it nowadays brings back the many tragic experiences in dealing with several life-and-death situations that were closely intertwined with vast forms of chemical abuse, tobacco and nicotine being the most common one!

Though not regarded as drugs of abuse as such, they are well known as the “gateway” to more deadly habits of substance abuse among teenagers, in particular.

It gives a guilt feeling that we are not trying hard enough to make headway in curbing the menace, unlike the successes shown by other countries that are our immediate neighbours.

It is precisely because of this that the current “nicotine-vape” delisting issue becomes very controversial to the well-being of Malaysians invariably leading to opening up of the “gateway” even wider beginning from April 1. 


It appeared to be urgently “engineered” to happen, neglecting  the plenty of advice offered by many quarters with credible authority and professional experiences.

Reportedly, it was in April too that the Prime Minister had “ordered an urgent investigation into how a RM790mil consignment of heroin was smuggled out of Malaysia to Brisbane, Australia.” 

"Not only these two events spark a very confusing signal since nicotine and heroin are scientifically well established to be of equal addictive “strength,” both cause more avoidable suffering and agony, each case being subjected to different types of enforcement and treatment.

The US Center for Disease Control reports that nicotine dependence is the most common chemical dependence in the US. Not unlike Malaysia. Nicotine addiction costs American taxpayers about US$190 billion per year.

Although the short-term effects of heroin addiction can outweigh the risks of short-term nicotine addiction, both are potentially deadly.

Once the nicotine or heroin addict stops  “smoking” for even a short time period, they experience withdrawal and the painful reminder that they are hooked, perhaps for a lifetime.

Both addictions, therefore, have lifelong dependencies. Further, like all addictions, nicotine and heroin addictions are chronic brain diseases.

The substance stimulates the brain’s reward system and the user can only concentrate on how to gain resupply to sustain euphoria (high); although nicotine gives a much milder and shorter euphoria in contrast to that attributed to heroin. Meaning nicotine needs to be supplemented more habitually.

Taking all these in context, Australia opted to ban the recreational use of nicotine in vape use, and thus rightfully, rejected any transactions involving the toxic substance, which is not the case for Malaysia.

Yet, Malaysia remains adamant about keeping nicotine off the Poisons List without providing any professional explanations until today.

In doing so, Malaysia continues to weaken its policy options in the fight against the country’s enemy number one.

At the same time, it demonstrates to the underworld its compromising stance in matters of public health concerns linked to substance of abuse.

Thus, tempting many more to risk indulgence in smuggling activities by exploiting the apparent gaps in existing policymaking awareness.

"However, to take an optimistic perspective, it is hoped that the current unfortunate incident will mount a strong impression to the relevant Malaysian authorities, in emulating Australia’s assertiveness to put nicotine back to where it legally belongs.

At the same time, to restore Malaysia’s image as a nation truly committed in the fight of substance abuse, without sacrificing anyone (especially the adolescence) on the altar of economics.

By now it must be clear that there is no room to stay oblivious without subjecting the nation to several tragic consequences that are avoidable in the first place!

  • The writer is a neuropharmacologist, and served as the inaugural director of National Poisons Centre (PRN) at USM