The Prime Minister recently stated plans to impose an excise duty on vape products in Malaysia. Instead of keeping them illegal, taxing e-cigarettes would automatically legalize them for sale as consumer products. Unfortunately, countries that have allowed e-cigarettes are facing a hard time with increasing incidence of children vaping, despite strict enforcement measures.
In the UK, for example, e-cigarettes are sold with bubble gum flavours and cartoon characters, and nine percent of pupils aged 11 to 15 years now vape, with the rate doubling among adolescent girls in the last three years.
Despite e-cigarettes being aggressively promoted to UK policymakers as smoking cessation aids, no e-cigarette has been approved for smoking cessation in the country to date. In reality, they have been ineffective to help smokers quit as three-quarters of current vapers continue to smoke, and problems associated with e-cigarettes are piling up. Nearly 350 hospitalisations due to vaping were logged in England in 2022, which are mainly respiratory problems, including shortness of breath, chest pain, lung inflammation, and, in severe cases, respiratory failure.
Malaysian policymakers are being lobbied to follow New Zealand’s endgame in embracing e-cigarettes, ignoring that New Zealand first adopted rigorous tobacco control measures such as plain packaging and requiring retailer licenses, which Malaysia has not done yet.
New Zealand also now has a growing vaping problem. The latest data from New Zealand’s Ministry of Health shows more people are now vaping (8.3 percent) compared to smoking (8 percent). The 2021 Vaping In New Zealand Youth Survey showed 20 percent of secondary school students were vaping daily.
In Australia, despite e-cigarettes containing nicotine only being allowed for sale to adults with a prescription, teenagers have easy access to them. Health experts describe the situation as a vaping epidemic spiralling out of control as more studies reveal the dangerous impacts of e-cigarettes on youths.
In Malaysia, e-cigarettes represent a runaway industry that has already hooked numerous youths on nicotine using youth-appealing flavours, brand names, and colourful packaging.
Although nicotine is a Class C poison that can only be sold with a licence (National Poison Act), the industry claims there are 3,000 vape businesses employing 15,000 people. While illegally selling unlicensed poisonous products. it is issuing statements and lobbying policy makers, threatening a black market if they are not legalised.
The black market is a convenient boogeyman the industry uses to oppose strict regulations, especially tax increases on tobacco products, even if tax increases are an effective tobacco control measure, as seen in countries that have low smoking rates.
Singapore, which bans e-cigarettes and has a low smoking prevalence of 10 percent, has just increased tax on tobacco by 15 percent in its 2023 Budget, the third hike in nine years. With this increase, a pack of 20 cigarettes that previously cost S$14 (USD 10.41) now costs S$15.52 (USD 11.54). Unlike Singapore, Malaysia has succumbed to the tobacco industry’s smuggling boogeyman and has not increased taxes on tobacco for the past seven years.
Vaping is not the solution to smoking. Malaysia must not hand over its youth to the harmful tobacco/nicotine industry. Instead, Malaysia must implement the generational end game policy by banning e-cigarettes and start phasing out tobacco by increasing tax on tobacco, requiring plain packaging, and reducing the number of tobacco retailers.
Tan Yen Lian
Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance