Huffing and puffing over a booming industry

Huffing and puffing over a booming industry
PHOTO: AFP, The Star/ANN

EXACTLY 37 years ago today, the suicides of cult leader Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers in Guyana, South America, made the news around the world.

I remember Nov 18, 1978 like it was yesterday, but for another significant reason.

At about 6pm on that day, I exhaled my last puff and crushed the half-smoked cigarette under my shoe.

Over the next few days, it was sheer hell dealing with nicotine withdrawal. I had started the habit at the age of 15 and over the next eight years, progressed to two packs a day.

Previous attempts to quit were short-lived because like most smokers, I was hooked on both sides of nicotine addiction - physical craving and psychological dependence.

The psychological part was the tougher nut to crack but if there is real resolve to stop, it can be done. If one has been psyched into believing that smoking is cool before being addicted, one can be psyched out of it too.

As it was the hardest thing that I had ever done, I picked up another bad habit - bragging about it, albeit only for a while.

Today, the first option for those trying to quit is to vape instead.

Malaysia has emerged as one of the countries where the use of electronic vapour devices or e-cigarettes have skyrocketed.

These battery-powered gadgets heat up liquid solutions called "juices" which contain, in most cases, nicotine along with glycerin, propylene glycol and food or drink flavours.

When the juice is heated, it turns into a vapour which is inhaled.

The Health Ministry's plan to either ban or strictly regulate vaping caught the booming local industry by surprise.

Raids on vaping outlets and seizures of devices and juices further roiled players in the RM500mil business, reputedly the second biggest in the world, after the United States.

The industry feels that the Poisons Act 1952 (Revised 1989), which the ministry used to act, is obsolete. Traders are also arguing that it is unfair for vape liquids to remain under the Act when nicotine in cigarettes is allowed under the Food Act 1983.

Ministry secretary-general Datuk Noor Hisham Abdullah, who announced the forming of a special task force on vape outlets last week, said liquids with nicotine must be registered under the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulation 1954 and the Sale of Drugs Act 1952, and distributed only through pharmacists and doctors.

As always in Malaysia, the elements of racism and political posturing are also clouding the issue.

On Monday, Mohd Riduan Abdullah, the head of the non-governmental organisation Pertubuhan Ikatan Usahawan Kecil dan Sederhana Malaysia (Ikhlas), urged Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam to rescind the decision.

He also asked whether the minister would crack down on vaping if the majority of those in the industry were Indians instead of Malays.

Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri, who is against any ban on vaping, weighed in by saying that the Malay-dominated industry would die if only pharmacists and doctors were allowed to sell nicotine-laced vapes.

Earlier, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said on Twitter that he preferred stringent rules for both vaping and tobacco, adding that if vaping was banned, cigarettes should be too.

Indeed, that would be the ideal solution but it is not a practical one.

Cigarettes in their present form have been around for about 150 years.

During the 1930s and 1940s, tobacco firms in the US even used doctors to promote their smokes. One ad read: "More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand".

It was only during the 1970s that the dangers of smoking were highlighted globally, and regulations and controls were only imposed in the early 1980s.

A World Health Organisation-led treaty to achieve a tobacco-free world by 2030, which came into force 10 years ago, has resulted in a drop of tobacco use but smoking still kills about six million people globally each year.

With teenagers and young adults caught up in the cool vaping craze, e-cigarettes are understandably the bigger worry.

On the surface, they appear to be safer than regular cigarettes.

Three months ago, Public Health England, an independent executive agency of Britain's Department of Health, reported that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful than smoking.

The agency, however, quickly came under fire from public health directors for basing its views on research funded by organisations with links to the tobacco industry.

With multinational tobacco manufacturers among the main players in the e-cigarettes industry, the authorities are worried that smoking could be back in vogue if vaping becomes acceptable.

It has been reported that about one-third of existing studies are biased with researchers declaring conflicts of interest.

Most medical experts, including those in Malaysia, however agree that vaping is a good option for smokers who want to quit. It is an acceptable harm-reduction tool in the short term.

But beyond that, in spite of the many studies, everything is as misty as the exhaled plumes of vapers. The long-term impact of vaping is still anybody's guess.

There are now hundreds of e-cigarette brands and thousands of flavours, including Malaysia's highly popular homegrown juices.

The devices deliver different amounts of nicotine, flavours and other additives.

In the US and several other countries, vapers also mix drugs like methamphetamine and marijuana in the juices.

A senior Health Ministry official said there were just too many unknowns about vaping and the safest thing to do was to take a no-risk approach.

"As it is, enforcement will be an nightmare. Just like what most countries are trying to do, we need to impose clear and stringent rules," he said.

Banning vaping may be difficult but there must be firm and fair controls on juices, limits on nicotine strengths and strict checks on advertising to reduce the still unknown risks.

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