JANUARY 24 — The advent of e-cigarettes 10 years ago ushered in a gold rush era for manufacturers and retailers as the new devices proliferated in a regulation-free market and cigarette smokers flocked to the less harmful tobacco alternative. Since then, studies into the health effects of e-cigarettes have returned conflicting results, and the world’s leading global health body has recently come out strongly against vaping as a substitute for tobacco smoking.
This has caused some countries to adopt an outright ban on e-cigarettes. Others, like Malaysia, have opted for a more mature and balanced approach to e-cigarette legislation.
After Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia banned vaping, Malaysia became one of the last countries in the region where e-cigarettes remained not only legal but also completely unregulated. This is set to change by 2019, when the government aims to institute two pieces of legislation to regulate the use and sale of vaporisers. The first will replace the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004, the out-dated law that currently regulates e-cigarettes.
The second law will cover the sale of vaping devices that do not contain nicotine. The announcement of the planned legislation has not prevented five Malaysian states from following the Malaysian Fatwa Council‘s advice that vaping is haram and should therefore be banned. According to Abdul Shukor Husin, the chairman of the Fatwa Council, “[Vaping] is detrimental to health… Islam forbids its followers from using things that can harm them directly or indirectly; immediately or gradually that can lead to death, damage the body, result in dangerous illnesses or harm the mind.”
This opinion, however, is not entirely shared by Britain’s Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and other health bodies. A report produced by the college concluded that the long-term negative health effects of e-cigarettes are “unlikely to exceed five per cent of those associated with smoked tobacco products” and should be promoted as a substitute for smoking.
The report found that, in contrast with critics’ claims, e-cigarettes are not a gateway to smoking, but are used almost entirely by people who already smoke tobacco or have done so in the past.
On the contrary, the RCP found that if anything, e-cigarettes are a likely gateway from smoking as people use them as a means of quitting rather than starting the habit.
In a study performed in Malaysia, researchers found that 95 per cent of vapers surveyed have either quit or cut down on smoking. The study further revealed that those who didn’t quit had on average cut their tobacco use from 19 to 4 cigarettes a day.
Curiously, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the world’s leading healthy body, is closer in its position on e-cigarettes to Malaysia’s Fatwa Council than it is to the Royal College of Physicians.
Last fall, the WHO produced a report on e-cigarettes for the Seventh Conference of the Parties of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC COP-7), a gathering of the world’s health officials. This report depicts e-cigarettes as a threat to global health on par with that of traditional tobacco products. The WHO even went so far as to bar journalists from attending the meeting, fearing negative media reports. Dissenters, including the UK Centre for Alcohol and Tobacco Studies, have condemned the WHO report’s policy outcomes for their extreme anti-vaping position and failure to recognise the harm-reduction potential of switching from tobacco to e-cigarettes.
Back in Malaysia, the government’s intended regulations have been welcomed by an industry that is crying out for clarity and standardisation. The new rules mean that people will be deterred from buying defective products from online sources and retailers will operate with more certainty about the regulatory environment.
With the price of tobacco products rising, pushing smokers to the black market, where cigarettes are generally higher in tar and nicotine, we should welcome vaping as a healthier, cheaper alternative to tobacco.
This is especially so given that the cost to the nation’s health care system of treating patients with smoking related illnesses is 1.2 times the revenue the state receives from taxing tobacco.
Considered from this point of view, a well-regulated e-cigarette market hits a number of positive notes.
The state will spend a lower proportion of its healthcare budget on treating sick smokers.
The government will lose less tax revenue to the illicit tobacco trade. And the overall health and wellbeing of the nation will improve.
If only more countries follow Malaysia’s well-balanced approach, the world might be better off for it.