Vaping: The answer to the smoking epidemic — Jahaziah Lim

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FEBRUARY 3 — Despite the numerous research papers published on the detrimental side effects of vaping, I want to make a counter-argument saying that vaping might be the solution to the smoking epidemic that we have all longed for.

There is a saying that goes “Nothing in this world can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” However, I would like to add another constant to the equation: Substance abuse, which includes smoking cigarettes and vaping.

Medical researchers have warned the public on the health risks of smoking tobacco since the 20th century. It was a problem in the past; it is currently a problem in Wawasan 2020; and it will continue to become a problem come SPV2030 and beyond.

Health ministries across the world are extremely caught up in the pursuit of reducing the amount of smoking through non-smoking campaigns, educational programmes, taxes, regulations, and governmental policies. Not only are these solutions expensive for taxpayers but they are relatively ineffective as well in terms of return on investments.

Despite many governments’ best efforts, there is no single country on Earth that has a 0 per cent smoking population. The country with the lowest smoking rate is Dominica, and that is because it is a tiny island in the middle of the ocean with a population of less than 75,000. Even then, 8.4 per cent of the population still smokes.

Our government has heavily imposed taxes on tobacco products; in fact, the same pack of cigarettes here in Malaysia costs more than twice that from many of our South-East Asian partners (three times the amount in the case of Indonesia). Yet not only is our smoking rate still relatively high, it has only spurred the growth of the illicit cigarette trade instead.

The fight to reduce the number of smokers is an uphill battle - a fight that most health ministries are participating in. But rather than increasing efforts to reduce cigarette consumption, why not ask a slightly different question instead: How can we make tobacco — or rather, nicotine — healthier for consumers?

“Blasphemy! This writer is trying to encourage more smoking!” I can hear in the distance. But to dispel a common myth, nicotine on its own is not chemically cancer-causing or excessively harmful. It is the combustion of cigarettes, which produces tar and a variety of other chemicals that are significantly more harmful to the human body. The primary concern is that, by itself, nicotine is highly addictive to users, which can form nicotine reliance and habitual dependency.

It is that nicotine dependency that pushes many smokers to resist many governmental initiatives to reduce smoking. That is why you get smokers banding together to file for an appeal to the government to resume their rights to smoking at eateries. So why work against the resistance, when you can use it to your advantage instead?

So how does vaping come into the picture?

In fact, I foresee these vaping devices becoming a primary smoking rehabilitation tool in the near future. These devices can introduce unique features such as a puff limiter (which automatically shuts down the device after a certain amount of use) or install smaller battery capacities (which force users to charge it more often per use).

From a government’s point of view, regulating a handful of vaping companies is also significantly easier compared to running nationwide campaigns which may or may not be proven effective.

While US regulators are taking the hard line against vaping and e-cigarettes - deeming it as a worse alternative to conventional smoking, and have actively conducted programmes that discourage vaping consumption - UK researchers, by contrast, are looking for nuggets of opportunities within these new products. Public Health England has revealed that e-cigarettes could be 95 per cent healthier than tobacco. The UK’s Royal College of Physicians also showed that e-cigarettes carried only about 5 per cent of the risks of smoking. As a disclaimer, the results from these UK studies are not very conclusive, and there are some methodology issues within the studies. The collection of accurate data and the understanding of health risks from vaping and e-cigarettes can only manifest itself after decades of research.

Still, it is highly commendable that such substantial research is being conducted in the first place, It marks a step in the right direction for the future of vaping products. I implore the Malaysian government to welcome these changes, and to play a role in nudging vaping products in the right direction as well.

In fact, a recent CNET article states that better tech innovation is able to prevent another vaping illness outbreak. A US company is implementing cannabis tracking solutions in order to stifle attempts at tampering vaping products with cannabis oil.

While private companies and startups are pushing for better product innovation and implementation, news is circulating that the Malaysian government is considering a blanket ban on these products, shutting all doors to potential innovation.

There is nothing wrong with imposing strict regulations with regards to the advertising and distribution of these vaping products; after all, it is logical to control a product that you do not fully understand. However, new vaping products are being released every month that are better than ever. Private companies are moving too fast, while the government is sitting and waiting on the sidelines.

Is it really that difficult to create a regulatory sandbox for vaping devices and similar products? Is it not possible to provide incentives for small companies to conduct rigorous testing and experimentation in order to produce better vaping products?

As Malaysians citizens, don't smokers have the right to pick a healthier alternative to cigarettes? Especially when such an opportunity currently already exists worldwide, handed over on a silver platter nonetheless?

Because when I picture the distant future of Malaysia, I see self-driving cars, Mars colonisation, and widespread adoption of advanced technologies as the Asean tiger. But I also foresee nicotine addicts peddling illegal cigarettes at a dark street corner, puffing their lives away, instead of using a vape pen which, by that point, is mostly harmless.

Because with the way our policies are headed, that will most likely be the outcome.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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