Three things we learnt about: Malaysia’s stand on vaping

It’s unclear how exactly Malaysia will regulate vaping, if the government chooses regulation over prohibition, and what kind of approvals will be needed. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
It’s unclear how exactly Malaysia will regulate vaping, if the government chooses regulation over prohibition, and what kind of approvals will be needed. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 23 — Vaping seems to be big business in Malaysia. According to the Malaysian E-Vaporisers and Tobacco Alternative Association (Mevta), Malaysia is the second-largest market in the world in terms of vapers’ purchasing power. They say Malaysia is also the second-largest vape liquid producer.

There are no hard figures to back up Mevta’s claims as the growing vaping industry in the country has yet to be regulated.

Although the vaping trend in Malaysia appeared to begin two years ago, government officials only started coming up with public statements on the issue in recent months, most of which have served to confuse those for, and against this relatively new habit.

While the Health Ministry headed by Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam raided vape shops, others like Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob have defended vaping on the basis that the industry is mostly run by young Malay entrepreneurs.

Here are three things we learnt about vaping and policymaking:

1.            Putrajaya’s contradictory and piecemeal response

The government appears to be in two minds on vaping. On one hand, the Health Ministry has been cracking down on vaping as well as the shops and cafes selling its juice, on the grounds that it is addictive and harmful to the body as regular nicotine smoke.

The latest to speak out strongly against vaping is the Higher Education Ministry, whose minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh announced Saturday a ban at all 20 public university campuses in the country, just like smoking.

And then there’s the Rural and Regional Development Ministry, and the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry, both of which have taken a softer approach towards vaping advocates.

Local daily the New Straits Times reported Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism deputy minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah as saying earlier this month that a price control could be imposed on vape devices.

The Health Ministry does not seem to have conducted any research on vaping, even though the trend in Malaysia started in 2013.

Instead, the Health Ministry went right on to raid vape shops and confiscated nicotine content in e-cigarettes earlier this month.

The Health Ministry also declared that only pharmacists and registered medical practitioners can sell vape liquids with nicotine, citing the Poisons Act 1952 that prohibits the sale of nicotine by other parties.

Selling vape juices without nicotine is pointless though, as it’s the drug that vapers want, albeit in what they believe is a safer form than cigarettes.

The Health Ministry also adopted a piecemeal approach towards vaping, announcing only on November 8 that it has formed a special committee to study vaping. Why wasn’t it formed much earlier before the industry expanded?

This sort of reaction towards vaping, resulting in sudden raids on vape shops, is pretty much the knee-jerk behaviour the public has come to regard the government to take, as it has done before on other matter.

2.            Regulation over prohibition

Instead of prohibiting vaping, the government should regulate the industry.

Banning it could trigger more knee-jerk reactions from the government, and more piecemeal policies.

If the government were to ban vaping, how would they enforce it? Do we have the resources to do so, even as we’re trying to fight the so-called war on drugs and contraband cigarettes that will surely rise in popularity after the prices of legal smokes were hiked to RM17 a pack?

Vaping should be taxed like tobacco and alcohol. Banning vaping outright will only drive the industry underground. And with any underground business like prostitution and drugs, corruption follows suit.

It also doesn’t make sense to ban vaping on grounds that it may be harmful. Vaping advocates will call out the hypocrisy in allowing cigarettes to remain legal. Besides, we don’t ban things like potato chips and fast food, even though they’re clearly unhealthy and are linked to obesity.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) filed its final regulations on vaping to the White House Office of Management and Budget last month, the second-last step in a process to regulate electronic cigarettes, according to Motherboard, a tech site by international news site Vice.

Small vaping businesses, however, are reportedly concerned that stringent FDA regulations that would cost millions of dollars may end up killing the industry.

It’s unclear how exactly Malaysia will regulate vaping, if the government chooses regulation over prohibition, and what kind of approvals will be needed.

But Putrajaya needs to set out such details clearly, and fast.

As it is, the long-term effects of vaping are unclear. Motherboard reported that early evidence shows vaping is safer than smoking, though it’s obviously more harmful than just breathing clean air. The chemicals used in flavouring vape liquids may also reportedly have dangerous side effects.

Banning vaping and driving the industry underground will only make vape products less safe, just like how illegal drugs are sometimes cut with toxic chemicals.

Prohibition is therefore not the answer here.

Mevta president Allan Foo told Malay Mail Online that the vaping industry in Malaysia used to be 98 per cent owned by the Malays, but it has now dropped to 70 per cent as new players entered the market in the last four months. — Picture by Yuosf Mat Isa
Mevta president Allan Foo told Malay Mail Online that the vaping industry in Malaysia used to be 98 per cent owned by the Malays, but it has now dropped to 70 per cent as new players entered the market in the last four months. — Picture by Yuosf Mat Isa

3.            Public backlash

Besides the public health aspect of the vaping debate, there is the social-economic aspect to consider as the industry is said to be dominated by the Malays.

Mevta president Allan Foo told Malay Mail Online that the vaping industry in Malaysia used to be 98 per cent owned by the Malays, but it has now dropped to 70 per cent as new players entered the market in the last four months.

“Because of the influx of new players, that is why the crackdown happened,” Foo said.

According to him, everyone wants a piece of the cake, ranging from politicians to businessmen and low-ranking office workers, “basically Ali, Ah Chong and Muthu”.

He estimated there are more than 1,200 vape shops in Malaysia.

In a country where the average monthly gross household income for the Bumiputera is lower than the ethnic Chinese or Indians, owning a successful business would be a source of pride for the Malays.

As Ismail Sabri put it, what will make him proud is to see young Malays’ vape products become world famous.

With disenfranchised Malay youths in the city resenting the Chinese for their perceived economic dominance, which led some to participate in the #Merah169 rally, it would certainly do no harm to facilitate Malay businesses. Legally.

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