The politics of vaping

NOVEMBER 8 — These are interesting times for nicotine addicts right now.

The prices for some cigarettes have spiked following a hike of up to 40 per cent in excise duties, which the industry has called “unprecedented.”

It is almost certain that prices will just continue to go up in this sick game where the government keeps raking in money because people will still keep smoking as none of the cash will be granted to a more effective anti-smoking campaign.

Looking to wean off smoking with alternative tobacco products? Well, you are out of luck too as the Health Ministry is on a crusade against vaping, kicking off surprise raids on Thursday against vape shops.

Naturally, the raid resulted in outrage from those affected with some traders reporting a loss of income worth thousands of ringgit from the merchandise confiscated.

The timing and efficacy of the crackdown was also astounding, with the raids happening barely two days after an announcement by minister Dr S Subramaniam, and just a day before he delivered his maiden speech as the newly-elected MIC president.

But then again, raiding vape shops must be a low-lying fruit. It took nearly a week after the typhoid alert was announced last month before authorities started raiding filthy eateries.

Among the outrage, however, was an element of comedy that was no less entertaining.

The vaping community found its unlikely hero in the youth wing of Malay rights group Perkasa, with its chief Irwan Fahmi Ideris repeatedly perceiving the crackdown as an attack towards Bumiputera traders.

Irwan questioned the motive of Dr Subramaniam, later claiming that Bumiputera entrepreneurs form the bulk of those involved in the sales and promotion of e-cigarettes, and the trade has become a cash cow for them amid the economic slump.

The jury is still out on whether vaping is bad for the health... but the whole issue has taken on a racial tone now. — AFP pic
The jury is still out on whether vaping is bad for the health... but the whole issue has taken on a racial tone now. — AFP pic

Another saviour of the vape community has been the Umno Youth, itself the public patron of the online community of e-cigarettes consumers: the Malaysia Organisation of Vape Entity (Move).

While Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin has shied away from aligning himself with the community, his number two Khairul Azwan Harun has been a vocal supporter through and through for the right to vape.

Umno Youth exco Armand Azha Abu Hanifah has also publicly attacked Dr Subramaniam, accusing the minister of making a unilateral decision against the Cabinet that has called for in-depth research before making any decision.

There are many others from Umno backing the community amid the crackdown, such as the controversial Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the minister in charge of rural and regional development who said he will represent the community during Cabinet meetings.

Then, of course, there is Nurul Hidayah, the daughter of deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who has been open about her vaping on social media. However, she has been vilified by the public because of her privileged position in addition to being a Malay woman.

It is disturbing when the vaping issue is made to be a racial and ethnic one.

Malay traders are not the only ones in the industry. There are many shops and traders run by ethnic Chinese businessmen.

The president of the Malaysian E-Vaporisers and Tobacco Alternative Association (Mevta) — an umbrella self-regulating body — Allan Foo, and many other committee members are ethnic Chinese.

Should issues concerning the public, or small and medium enterprises, only deserve attention when the Bumiputeras are affected? Should other interference by the state be left unchecked if it only concerns the non-Malays?

Will Putrajaya listen to the grouses of the public only if it comes from Umno, or one of its wings? Will the voiceless stay voiceless if their interests do not align with the ruling party?

This patronage politics is what keeps certain quarters of the public indebted to Umno, and we can see why the party is clinging to it. Again, in this vaping issue, the ideal solution would see Putrajaya leaving the decision making process to the legislative branch, and only then the executive.

The way the Health Ministry has been handling the situation has been atrocious, to say the least.

It has been working in a purely knee-jerk reaction. Why now when e-cigarettes have been around close to a decade? Does it really take public furore for our ministry to take up certain issues?

There have been many baffling statements coming from the minister and his deputy, Dr Hilmi Yahaya, down to the director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah and his deputy Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman.

Being practising medical doctors, all of them should know better than to rely on peer-reviewed scientific facts before making any decision or statement on behalf of the ministry.

Remarks made by them, from claiming that God does not allow humans to ingest foreign fumes, to suggesting that vape liquids can turn to formaldehyde, and warning against nicotine content in the liquids have so far run counter to the discourse on the topic overseas.

On the one hand, it is great that the vaping community is turning to scientific papers to back their arguments — instead of relying on religious edicts — but conversely, they have eroded public trust of our healthcare system.

The community has even started claiming that the ministry is in the pocket of Big Tobacco. It is a question many have started asking: why ban instead of regulating harm?

Whether the community’s claim is right or wrong is up for debate, but alas, it is a pipe dream to see a reasonable discourse ever happening here.

The Health Ministry has only dug itself a hole with the sudden crackdown, and this might have repercussions on any health policies in the future.

The ministry might have meant well to ensure the health of the citizens. And it should be left to do its job.

Alas, its rash decision might have just driven nicotine addicts underground or turn to smokes which, illicit or not, are certainly no more healthier.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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