Malaysia: Expert warns of renewed push by vape industry amid concern over ‘child-friendly’ products

19 June 2023

This follows the government’s move to delist liquid nicotine as a poisonous substance and to refer the ‘endgame’ bill for further scrutiny.

By Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli, Malaysia Now

The local vape industry, once on the wane after a fatwa against the activity in 2015, appears to be on the rise again with a health expert warning of an intensified push following the government’s move to delist liquid nicotine as a poisonous substance. 

The vape industry was worth an estimated RM2.49 billion as of February this year, and is expected to continue growing after Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa announced the exemption of nicotine from the Poisons Act 1952 despite widespread criticism from health experts. 

Vape is currently available online and in boutiques at commercial premises, some of which specialise in the substance. Others meanwhile combine the sale of vape with other businesses such as hair salons and delivery hubs.  

Critics have accused operators of targeting teenagers and children with attractive packaging and a wide range of flavours, while this year’s Hari Raya Aidilfitri season also saw several shops issuing the green envelopes traditionally used for the giving of “duit Raya”. 

Reports have also been circulating on the introduction of self-service or vending machines that sell vape products, which would make them publicly accessible including to schoolchildren, unlike tobacco products like cigarettes, the sale of which is restricted to those over 18.  

Dr Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar said the vape industry was seizing the opportunity to market its products to new customers following the government’s move to remove nicotine from the Poisons Act. 

“Some vape products are being sold for as low as RM5, in the form of disposable pods,” Rafidah, of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, told MalaysiaNow. 

Such pods, according to a vape user who asked to remain anonymous, are gaining in popularity. 

Rafidah said it was also difficult for the authorities to monitor the ingredients of the flavours which make vape popular, even among non-smokers. 

“Cigarette manufacturers have to comply with the nicotine content standards, and enforcement officers can check their packs batch by batch,” she said. 

“But who knows what is mixed in the flavouring for vape? This is all an introduction to the use of drugs.” 

Self-regulation

The health ministry announced on June 13 that the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2022 had recorded an increase in vaping or the use of e-cigarettes among teenagers aged 13 to 17, from 9.8% in 2017 to 14.9% in 2022.

It said a significant increase was also recorded among teenage girls, from 2.8% in 2017 to 6.2% in 2022.

The ministry’s statement came a day after Zaliha recommended in the Dewan Rakyat that the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023, aimed at creating a generation free from smoking, be referred to the parliamentary special select committee on health for further scrutiny.

The bill, known as the “generational endgame” bill, includes a ban on the use and purchase of tobacco by those born after 2007.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is also the finance minister, previously announced an excise duty on liquid or gel products containing nicotine, with half of the proceeds to be allocated to the health ministry. 

The duty came into force on April 1, at a rate of RM0.40 for every millilitre of liquid or gel containing nicotine in the vape product. 

Malaysia is currently the largest exporter of vape liquid.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, pharmacist Fahmi Hassan questioned the industry’s promise of self-regulation. 

“For example, they are free to use any method they like to promote their products, including in forms that appeal to teenagers, using attractive flavours and colours, and advertisements that show vaping as a way of life,” he said. 

“This is against their pledge that they would only sell vape to existing smokers.” 

He added that the availability of vape online, complete with delivery services, made it easily accessible to anyone, including schoolchildren. 

Rafidah meanwhile said that the generational endgame bill, if passed, would be able to curb the smoking habit. 

She said Singapore had witnessed a decline in smoking among teenagers after passing a law in 2018 prohibiting the import and sale of vape in the city-state. 

“We need to press on,” she said. “Now the industry is playing tug-of-war. 

“But the law exists to protect segments of society, and to ensure that the industry does not determine national policy.”