Vape, shisha add to smokescreen in anti-tobacco campaign, says expert

Vapers often argue that the habit is less harmful than conventional smoking. (Bernama pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: A prominent cancer control expert has urged Malaysia to curb the rising popularity of electronic cigarettes or vaping, saying the habit was a concern among medical circles.

Prof Sanchia Aranda, who heads the Cancer Council Australia, also said that shisha, a popular way of smoking tobacco in the Middle East, was problematic as it was “culturally embedded” within Muslim communities.

“It’s harmful in its own right, but it’s also part of how socialisation happens in the Islamic community particularly.

“So it’s much harder than banning cigarette smoking,” Aranda told FMT on the sidelines of the World Cancer Congress here recently.

Aranda rejected the common argument by some who paint e-cigarette and shisha in a good light, saying there was no evidence they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

“There is absolutely no evidence that supports their claim. In fact, there are increasing concerns of strong cardiac effects through e-cigarette vapour, which affects us on a cellular level the same way cigarettes do.

“If you are a smoker who doesn’t vape, you are likely to vape when you can’t smoke cigarettes. If you are a teenager, and you take to vaping, you are three times more likely to smoke combustible cigarettes and very likely to use both together,” she said.

She said there would come a time “we’ll be having the same conversation we have today about combustible tobacco products, but on e-cigarettes”.

Vape businesses are tolerated by the authorities in Malaysia, although the Johor sultan had ordered the closure of vape outlets in the state.

It is estimated that there are between 4,000 and 5,000 outlets selling vape products.

Aranda said the worldwide practice of taxing the tobacco industry was counter-intuitive.

She questioned why revenue from tobacco taxes was not channelled towards prevention programmes instead.

“In Australia, smoking rates are going down, but the taxation rate is still going up, so we haven’t got to the point whereby we drive down taxation.

“Instead of increasing taxes to feed more corruption, which is not a good thing here, we have to see the majority of tax revenue fed back into the system for better health outcomes, including prevention and awareness programmes,” she said.

She said the tobacco industry was “quite convincing” with their arguments.

Citing an example, Aranda said some argue that banning tobacco products or e-cigarettes would affect the poor.

Sanchia Aranda.

“They say it’s bad for the economy because tobacco farmers will lose out, but it’s not like the money people do not spend on tobacco will not go out.

“They will spend it and invest it elsewhere. The economy will continue growing.”

On concerns by the tobacco industry that illicit cigarettes would grow with increased taxation, Aranda said that could happen in the absence of measures to support existing laws in the first place.

Aranda said there is still a long way to go for governments to address the issue of tobacco and new methods of smoking such as shisha and vaping.

She said even in Singapore, where a ban on chewing gum remains, had failed to pass a law to ban tobacco products.

On a lighter note, she said politicians “cared more about litter and sticky chewing gum on pavements” than tackling more serious health issues.

“The tobacco industry has long been successful at undermining the government and affecting the way it implements decisions. What they are doing is working. They have the confidence of the government, and that is why we need to be better.”

In Dec 2016, Malaysia announced that it would amend laws to regulate vaping, giving three federal ministries a mandate to do so.

The health ministry said it will also draft a new law to replace the 2004 Tobacco Control Regulations in two years.

The science, technology and innovation ministry has since been tasked with coming up with standards for e-cigarettes.

There has been no news on the updated laws after the May 9 government change, while vape businesses expect the laws to kick in by 2019.