Special Report: Ministry caught between a rock and a hard place over vaping

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 2, 2019 - December 08, 2019.

Syed Azaudin (left) says the vaping industry should be regulated while Ridhwan says vaping gained traction in the middle of last year as technology advancements brought down the prices of many vaping products. Photo by Kenny Yap/The Edge

-A +A

AS the government tries to bring the scourge of illicit cigarettes under control, it faces another challenge: the emergence of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) or “vaping”.

Vaping has become a fad too big to ignore, with some quarters suggesting that it will gradually replace conventional cigarettes. In fact, the world’s Big Three tobacco players — Philip Morris International Inc, British American Tobacco Plc and Japan Tobacco International — have invested heavily in these reduced risk products to retain their share of the still-growing market.

The value of the vaping market in Malaysia has been estimated at RM2 billion, but the Malaysian Vape Chamber of Commerce (MVCC) believes it is higher as the market is fragmented and there is no agency collecting data on illicit vaping products.

It might feel like vaping has come out of nowhere, but according to MVCC secretary-general Ridhwan Rosli, the vape industry has seen its share of ups and downs since its evolution from a cottage industry in 2013.

He says vaping gained major traction in the middle of last year as technology advancements brought down the prices of many vaping products. Most of these tank-based vaping devices are made in China, where the production cost is 20% to 30% lower than that in Malaysia.

But in the last few months, reports of a number of vaping-related deaths in the US have brought the safety of e-cigarettes into question even as Malaysia has yet to decide on an outright ban on the industry or to strictly regulate it.

“We have been waiting for the introduction of regulations for the industry since the chamber was formed in 2015,” MVCC president Syed Azaudin Syed Ahmad tells The Edge.

“In the meantime, however, vaping has been getting something of a bad name. As such, we urge the government to regulate the vape industry. We support regulations for vaping products to be introduced as soon as possible to provide a clear direction for the industry here.”

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the Ministry of Health (MoH) has been its indecision over whether or not to regulate the vaping industry. It was only recently that the ministry announced it would be tabling a bill on the usage of tobacco, vape, electronic cigarettes and shisha in parliament by the March 2020 sitting.

While Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye would not say exactly when, he tells The Edge he is hopeful that it can be done next year. He heads a task force set up to examine issues relating to control over e-cigarettes and vaping.

According to Lee, the 20-member task force includes representatives from agencies such as the Ministry of Domestic Tradeand Consumer Affairs, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (which governs online retail sales) and the Department of Standards Malaysia, which will set standards for vaping devices.

Why is it taking so long? It is not an easy issue to address, Lee says, as it involves multiple stakeholders, including the MoH, industry players and non-governmental organisations.

“Additionally, the e-cigarette is an emerging product. At the initial stage, we were not sure of the short-term and long-term [health] effects. Even until now, we do not know what the long-term health effects are. Although we have some idea about what it can do, the evidence is still evolving,” he says.

“For instance, cases of e-cigarette or vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI) were only reported this year. The knowledge of e-cigarettes and their health effects is still evolving.”

So far, the ministry has established that e-cigarettes are not safe, although they may not be as bad as smoking conventional cigarettes, says Lee. “How much safer? We are not sure. A review by Public Health England suggests that vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking. [To MoH], even a 5% risk is still harmful.”

Another thing that the ministry has found is that many of the vaping communities started with smoking cigarettes.

“When they cut down on smoking, they switched to vaping. They don’t stop smoking altogether, but instead become dual users. A New Zealand survey data shows that the harm reduction among dual users is only marginal,” says Lee.

“And the main thing that worries us is that e-cigarettes and vaping are recruiting new users, especially children and youth. The NZ survey shows that some vape users have never smoked before. They started vaping, thinking it is trendy, fashionable and were attracted to its sweet-smelling vapour, not knowing that after one or two weeks, they would become addicted and unable to quit.

“Of course, you’ve got industry players arguing that vaping reduces the health risks related to nicotine addiction. That’s what the UK law is advocating. But if we want to use that under MoH’s legislation, you have got to register it as a drug or treatment to help people quit smoking like nicotine patches and gum. So far, no e-cigarette or vaping product has been presented as an effective smoking cessation drug,” he notes.

Industry players such as JT International Bhd (JTI Malaysia) and MVCC have called on the MoH to emulate the regulations currently in place in the UK as they believe these have shown to be effective in regulating the vaping industry.

“Many people have said that regulations in the UK are strict but we are not worried because we are already exporting our vaping products there. That our products have been well received there suggests that local vape manufacturers comply with their standards. We are more worried about counterfeit vaping products because there is currently no regulation to control them,” says Syed Azaudin.

 

Should the sale of e-cigarettes be legalised?

According to Lee, there are three ways to regulate the vape industry.

One is a total ban. “This means we close all vape shops. That is the easiest thing for the government to decide, but there are also some pitfalls. One is that people may ask, ‘If you can ban e-cigarettes, why don’t you ban smoking since smoking is more harmful than vaping?’ I have no answer to this. A total ban also creates enforcement problems,” he says.

The second approach is to allow a low amount of nicotine in all e-cigarettes sold. The advantages of this are that the devices and chemicals used in vaping liquid are approved for use, and people will not turn to dangerous products from the black market, Lee explains.

Still, he points out that the drawback is that this may “open the floodgates” and everyone will start vaping because it is a legal product.

“If we emulate the UK [in legalising vaping], we are worried as to whether we will be opening the floodgates because the harm reduction has been marginal there. While there is some percentage of people who actually stopped smoking, a lot ended up being dual users. So, while smoking has gone down in the UK, new vaping communities have emerged and some of these people have never smoked before,” Lee says.

There is another way to regulate the vape industry, which is to allow the sale of e-cigarettes without nicotine. Lee likens this to a total ban.

“So, there are a lot of considerations to take before we decide the way to regulate the industry. These are [what is] causing the delay,” he says.

Nevertheless, he says MoH is cognisant of the problems if vaping products are not regulated or are banned.

In an earlier interview with The Edge, JTI Malaysia managing director Cormac O'Rourke had said there is already a de facto ban on vaping products in the country as all nicotine products not derived from tobacco are currently regulated under the Poisons Act 1952.

Lee concurs, noting that MoH’s enforcement currently focuses on vape outlets that are likely to sell their products to minors. “Action can also be taken against those who vape in designated non-smoking areas.”

He also acknowledges that MVCC, which represents about 1,900 industry players in the country, has urged the task force to involve the chamber in providing input on the new regulations that are being developed. “Yes, they have requested but we have not decided whether to include them in the committee. If we do not allow them to be in the committee, then we might allow them to do presentations. But engagements will still be there.”

 

Banning vaping could do more harm than good, says MVCC

Syed Azaudin warns that should the government choose to ignore the vape industry by imposing a total ban, it could lead to the creation of one of the biggest black markets in the world. It could also lead to rising prices of vaping products.

“This is what is happening in Singapore [after it banned vaping]. For example, the price of e-liquid is around RM20 in Kuala Lumpur, but it can be RM40 to RM50 in Johor,” he says.

MVCC’s Ridhwan also points out that local vape players welcome excise tax on e-cigarette products provided there is enforcement. “If there is an excise tax, then counterfeit products such as fake vaping devices will be regulated. Hence, the industry doesn’t mind paying excise tax.”

He estimates that the local industry has over 5,000 vape players, comprising manufacturers, importers, exporters and retailers. “Currently, the industry is being developed mainly by local youth entrepreneurs where 95% are  bumiputeras.”

Read also:

MoH explains position on illegal tobacco trade

Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.