By Hafidz Baharom
I’ll start with a personal statement. I come from a family of smokers, and some have moved to vaping and e-cigarettes as a conscious choice to reduce harm to their health by foregoing cigarettes entirely.
With spare parts for vaping now being difficult to find, coupled with the fact that even licensed sellers are going bust, many have fallen off the wagon not just in my personal circle, but most likely in many parts of the country as well.
As such, the question above needs to be asked not just from a Malaysian standpoint, but also a global one. The Health Ministry has promised a set of guidelines regarding vaping and e-cigarettes for almost a year now.
Honestly, we had entrepreneurs in Malaysia setting-up their e-cigarettes businesses and before long becoming leaders in an industry that would not only have reduced harm to smokers’ health, but would have reduced air pollution, with a win-win situation for everyone. Yet again, we have the government dragging its feet.
And while the ministry continues to give hope yet refuses to mention a final date as to when the guidelines will emerge, Malaysian entrepreneurs in the fledgling industry have gone bust.
However we cannot solely blame the government, especially since the global debate has been somewhat confusing. It seems the public health community is divided on whether or not novel tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and other non-combustible alternatives to cigarettes, should be promoted, regulated or banned.
Initial studies showed that vaping and e-cigarettes were a viable alternative for smokers to reduce the bad effects of smoking on their health.
This included one from the Public Health England (an executive agency of the Department of Health in the UK), that concluded that e-cigarettes were 95 per cent safer compared to cigarettes due to smoking related diseases being mainly caused by harmful by-products that existed in the smoke generated by burning cigarettes.
Another study by Public Health England published results last month, that showed that fewer people were smoking cigarettes due to the existence of alternatives such as vaping.
Furthermore, the European Union has already come up with regulations on e-cigarettes under their tobacco directive, thus showing an ability to compromise and ensure quality and safety for consumers in terms of devices and product content.
Thus, why is the government walking on eggshells regarding this issue?
My guess is that it is due to nations waiting for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to come up with a final say on the matter in November.
To be fair, the international health agency has in fact asked for e-cigarettes to be regulated in their last published document on the matter.
A recent WHO report admitted the potential benefits of e-cigarettes, vaping and other heat-not-burn products, and recommended that the government of countries consider regulation instead of a total ban.
It also mentioned “harm reduction” as a tool to improve public health, admitting that switching to an alternative source of nicotine with lower health risks would be a public health achievement.
Malaysia has also been one of the few governments in the world that has taken proactive steps to openly guarantee regulations rather than issue a total ban.
These developments should be applauded.
However, this needs to be said – the WHO has been shifting its stance for years now.
While also continually bemoaning a future of a billion people smoking in 2025, and most of them being in Asia, and now with research into the matter, perhaps the WHO will take a fixed stance and begin promoting these alternatives?
It should not instead be hounded by baseless, emotional arguments, swallowed and spewed out as dogma.
Thus, shouldn’t the agency be looking at openly promoting parallel efforts in order to stop people from smoking, mainly through the alternative e-cigarette and other such innovative devices?
Furthermore, with the WHO also concerned with air pollution reaching 440 parts per million (ppm), it should look at cigarette smoking and its alternatives from an environmental angle.
Is the alternative not also a small yet practical look at reducing a person’s carbon footprint?
After all, instead of burning cigarettes, those who move to e-cigarettes or other novel tobacco products with reduced harm, which can be by means of heating e-liquids or tobacco, are generating vapour rather than harmful cigarette smoke.
This is a debate for the Conference of Parties (CoP) in November, which hopefully Malaysian representatives will bring up in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian government at the same time needs to be reminded that it has to cater to Malaysians smokers who are seeking a less harmful alternative to smoking cigarettes as well as local industries first, instead of giving priority to a foreign organisation.
It should also stop delaying the release of guidelines for an industry that went from boom to bust in less than a year due to knee-jerk reactions not backed by facts or even preliminary credible scientific research.
Hafidz Baharom is an FMT reader.
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