Malaysia, don’t wait for the law to protect children from the dangers of nicotine

9 July 2023

By Mangai Balasegaram, The Star

Parents, protect your children. Tell them to beware of the thousands of vape products flooding the market, targeting children with bright colours, fruity flavours, and cute cartoons. Tell them that while children can now legally vape (crazy, yes), vaping has been shown to cause lung scarring (“popcorn lungs”), organ damage, and breathing problems.

Tell them that ecigarettes and vapes in Malaysia can be highly addictive, comprising even 5% liquid nicotine – close to the level where it is toxic (6%) and far above concentrations in countries regulating vape (2%-3%).

Tell them that health authorities can’t keep up with the changing contents of vapes (with 17,000 flavours identified globally), and there are unknown effects from combining and heating these chemicals.

Tell them what is safe to eat may not be safe to inhale, such as vitamin E acetate, which is linked to “ecigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury” (evali). Tell them a 16-year-old Malaysian girl’s death last month was attributed to evali, according to Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa.

Since liquid nicotine was taken off the poisons list in March, enabling its sale, vape products are mushrooming.

“Children don’t realise they’re addictive,” says NV Subbarow, an education and anti-smoking activist with the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) who has talked to 8,000 schoolchildren about vaping.

Vapes often highlight fruit flavours like lemon or mango, or chocolate. “It’s a trap. The children tell me, this is fruit, not tobacco. They think it’s approved by the government. They ask me, ‘How can they sell poison to us?’”

He says in a group of 100 children, he might find 30 or so who are vaping. “Teachers are seeing more and more children vaping. They are calling me to give talks.” Even primary schoolchildren are vaping. Pods can be sold for just RM5.

Children buy vapes from other students (who earn gadgets or cash in commission), or from roadside stalls selling sweets and fruits, some sited near schools. Vapes are also sold online and marketed on social media. And all this continues without regulation.

“As a father and grandfather, I feel worried. We need a large campaign,” says Subbarow. “Parents ask me, ‘Why doesn’t the government ban vape, like other countries?”

That’s a good question.

A year ago, then Health minister Khairy Jamaluddin proposed the “Generational End Game” (GEG) Bill to ban tobacco sales to the generation born after 2005. The vape industry was then technically operating illegally, and the Health Ministry was staunchly anti-vaping.

Today, liquid and gel nicotine can be legally sold to anyone, including children, after the 1952 Poison Act was amended (reportedly ignoring the Poisons Board’s opposition). One former top health official described this as “the most ridiculous” health policy, given that liquid nicotine is a poison at high doses, and questioned how nicotine concentrations could be controlled.

A new generation is now getting hooked on nicotine. Meanwhile, the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 has faded from view, pushed to a parliamentary select committee.

The government argues that the move was to tax the RM2.5bil vape industry and legalise traders. But of the 2,000 or more traders, only 10 have registered. “The tax doesn’t make sense,” says Mary Assunta, senior policy advisor for the South-East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

The industry, which includes large multinationals, now benefits as Malaysia manufactures and exports electronic devices that heat tobacco and vape liquids.

The industry argues that vaping and ecigarettes are safer than smoking, often citing an outdated study, and that it can be a smoking cessation tool.

Assunta discounts such arguments. She says of nicotine: “You can’t unpoison a poison.” Also, not all vape contents have been tested for safety, and further, flavours are meant to be eaten, not inhaled into the lungs.

Some 77 vape poisoning cases have been referred to the National Poison Centre, seven in June alone. “The government is not compiling these cases and vaping is not recorded as a cause of death,” says Assunta.

Since the harms of vaping are still emerging and not fully documented, a precautionary principle must be applied, she says.

“A government like Malaysia has no capacity to strictly regulate [vaping] safety and sales.”

The powerful tobacco industry is known for swaying health policy or pre-empting strong legislation through aggressive lobbying. Assunta, who has long monitored the industry, says even in Uruguay, a country with strong anti-tobacco policies, a vape ban got reversed.

In Malaysia, the delay to pass the GEG Bill has resulted in zero regulation on vaping. “The victims are actually children,” points out Assunta.

But civil society is fighting back. CAP is urging the government to pass the Bill and place the health of children above “profits of the tobacco cartel and taxes”.

On June 30, 2023, in a historic challenge, tobacco control and child rights non-governmental organisations filed a suit against the Health Minister and Malaysian government, seeking a judicial review on liquid nicotine. The Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control says the lawsuit is a “last resort”, as thousands of children might get addicted by the time Parliament passes the GEG Bill. They are calling on the public to donate a symbolic RM1 in support.

For now, with no law and a “wild, wild West” vape market, parents protect your children.


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