SEA anti-tobacco group calls for stronger gov’t action amidst ‘e-cigarette epidemic’ among teens

3 January 2024

By Arra Perez, ABS-CBN News

MANILA – The Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) is pushing for a ban on e-cigarettes, echoing the World Health Organization’s (WHO) call for urgent action to prevent the uptake of e-cigarettes among the youth and the general population.
 
The SEATCA believes “these products are harmful and not effective for quitting tobacco use.”
 
“WHO states e-cigarettes have been aggressively promoted to young people through social media and influencers. Children have been specially targeted through the use of cartoon characters, the availability of at least 16,000 flavors, and e-cigarettes that resemble toys, sweets, and school supplies,” it said.
 
Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo, executive director of SEATCA, said ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia allow sales of e-cigarettes.
 
The group noted the increase in prevalence of e-cigarette use among teenagers aged 13 to 15 years in the region.
 
“These products should be banned because they are harmful and prolonging the tobacco pandemic. Claims of harm reduction are unproven and deceptive. It is more accurate to say this is harm initiation for youths that have never smoked and harm substitution for smokers trying to quit,” he added.

E-CIGARETTE PREVALENCE IN PH TEENS
 
According to the 2019 Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS), over 14 percent of Filipino students aged 13 to 15 years old use e-cigarettes, with over 20% prevalence in boys and 7.5% in girls.
 
The same study found that more than 75 percent of the students who smoke bought cigarettes from a store, shop, street vendor, or kiosk.
 
Meanwhile, the Expanded National Nutrition Survey of the Department of Science and Technology-Food and Nutrition Research Institute (DOST-FNRI) showed current smokers among adolescents aged 10 to 19 years old increased from 1.6 percent in 2019 to 4.2 percent in 2022.
 
In a statement, WHO said e-cigarette use in teens is higher than in adult population in all of its regions.
 
“E-cigarettes with nicotine are highly addictive and are harmful to health. Whilst long-term health effects are not fully understood, it has been established that they generate toxic substances, some of which are known to cause cancer and some that increase the risk of heart and lung disorders,” it said.
 
“Use of e-cigarettes can also affect brain development and lead to learning disorders for young people. Fetal exposure to e-cigarettes can adversely affect the development of the fetus in pregnant women. Exposure to emissions from e-cigarettes also poses risks to bystanders,” it added.

‘ENTICING’ FLAVORS
 
Vape seller Mark Anthony Aquino observed their products are popular because they are handy, affordable compared to buying cigarettes daily, and taste good because of their flavors.
 
Aquino estimates a budget of P250 to P550 for a disposable vape, while refillable vapes cost about P1,500.
 
Depending on use, he explained that a disposable vape can last for a week to a month, while refillable pod vape kits are built for long-term use, wherein only a refill for e-liquid is needed.
 
“Based lang sa experience ko, siguro dahil din sa flavor nga rin, mas na-e-enjoy mo iyong vape. Tsaka mas nakakatipid ka. Kasi nagyo-yosi rin ako dati,” he told ABS-CBN News.
 
Aquino believes e-cigarettes are alternatives to tobacco smoking, which would eventually lead to quitting smoking altogether.
 
“Mahirap i-quit ang yosi. Hindi ko rin naman masasabing healthy ang vaping. Meron pa rin iyon side effect kasi bisyo pa rin. Parang stepping stone mo siya para totally quitting talaga,” he shared.
 
Aquino shared he acknowledges their industry is affected by anti-tobacco advocates, but he also cannot deny the ill-effects of smoking to one’s health. Thus, they try to complement their livelihood by selling other products aside from vape.
 
Customer Iñigo De Leon, who shifted to vaping from smoking tobacco, said he is ready to quit the vice soon, as part of his New Year’s resolution.
 
“Parang yosi na rin po e, kailangan mag-quit din para mas healthy,” he said.
 
For De Leon, vaping is not “cool”, and is not even worth a try.
 
“Kung gagamitin n’yo lang iyong vape para maging cool kayo, hindi maangas sa inyo tingnan sa inyo. Mas maganda kung huwag na lang kayo mag-vape. Gastusin n’yo sa sarili ninyo iyong pera n’yo, hindi sa bisyo,” he added.

BANNING, REGULATING E-CIGARETTES
 
The WHO appealed to countries that have successfully banned e-cigarettes to “strengthen implementation of the ban and continue monitoring and surveillance to support public health interventions and ensure strong enforcement.”
 
For countries that allow commercialization, including the sale, importation, distribution, and manufacture of e-cigarettes, the agency said they must “ensure strong regulations to reduce their appeal and their harm to the population, including banning all flavors, limiting the concentration and quality of nicotine, and taxing them,”
 
“Any government pursuing a smoking cessation strategy using e-cigarettes should control the conditions under which the products are accessed to ensure appropriate clinical conditions and regulate the products as medicines (including requiring marketing authorization as medicines),” the WHO said, pertaining to countries in the process of ending smoking.
 
“The decision to pursue a smoking cessation objective, even in such a controlled form, should be made only after considering national circumstances, along with the risk of uptake and after exhausting other proven cessation strategies,” it added.
 
Based on current evidence, the agency also does not recommend that governments allow the sale of e-cigarettes.