It's impossible to catch us all: E-cigarettes' sellers

It's impossible to catch us all: E-cigarettes' sellers
BANNED: A man adding vape juice to his electronic cigarette in the US.
PHOTO: Reuters

They coin cool names for their following and set up forums to discuss the merits of using electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

"Vapers", a term used to describe enthusiasts of the nicotine-laced vapour used in e-cigarettes, have also fuelled a thriving black market in the devices.

Users claim the device helps them kick the smoking habit. Addiction experts rubbish the claims, saying the e-cigarettes are harmful, can cause cancer and may well introduce smoking to the young and impressionable.

But some users don't care and with the ban, the price of e-cigarettes have been skyrocketing.

A starter set of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, cost around $100 three years ago in the black market. Now, you have to fork out nearly twice that to buy the same set.

The New Paper on Sunday tracked down three men who used to sell e-cigarettes illegally. They claim they no longer do it.

We found them through online advertisements, and they returned our call with a private number after we contacted them. They agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

"Every time the Government talked about enforcement, we would tell our customers that we had no choice but to raise prices because of the risk," says Ben, not his real name.

Another seller says the black market for e-cigarettes is, in fact, even more lucrative now.

The man, who wanted to be known only as Frank, says it is good money for them as they already charge a large markup of 300 per cent over the original price of the products.

A $175 starter set cost $60 to buy in a shopping mall in Johor, Malaysia, says the 34-year-old sales associate.

"People are frightened of being caught, which is why more approach the middlemen instead of trying to get the supplies by themselves," says Frank.

"The ban didn't affect the demand. Instead, I see that the black market is doing better because of the ban."

E-cigarettes use batteries to power vaporisers and have to be refilled with a chemical called the e-liquid.

Users inhale a vapour that can contains nicotine, which users claim helps them quit smoking as it does not contain tobacco.

These vapours usually come in various flavours, such as those of fruits and herbs.

The Government banned them in 2010 as it argued then that they were marketed to appeal to new users, including youth and women.

From 2011 to March this year, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has prosecuted eight persons for selling such products.

It raided one such seller in March who allegedly purchased them from various overseas suppliers to sell via an e-commerce website.

But sellers do not seem to be deterred, says another seller who wants to be known only as Mr Lee.

"It makes more sense to buy e-cigarettes or e-liquid through one person, because if I got caught and fined, my customers promised to pay the fines for me," he says.


Eight have been caught and prosecuted but Mr Lee claims there are far more sellers out there like him.

Says Mr Lee: "As far as I know, the black market consists of many private individuals rather than one big syndicate.

"It's basically people selling the stuff to friends they know and trust.

"It's impossible to catch us all. There is no point in a ban when the supply is so easily procurable."

Sellers get their stock by smuggling them from Malaysia or buying them online, reveals Frank.

"The 'sticks' are dismantled into pieces and the labels are ripped off. I used to pour the e-liquid into Eye-Mo bottles so they can't be detected at the border."

He says the relative ease of smuggling e-cigarette supplies and the profit margins have turned many of his customers into sellers too.

This is how the size of the black market remains stable, says Frank.

"Although the risk is great, as long as there is a demand, there will be a supply."

But vapers are taking precautions. Where once they thrived online in several forums dedicated to their habit, they have now become more discreet with their discussions fearing that the authorities are watching them.

And sales of e-cigarettes, once done openly on the forums, has gone underground. Under the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act, the import, distribution, sale or offer for sale of anything that resembles a tobacco product is prohibited.

Offenders may be fined up to $5,000 for the first time, and up to $10,000 subsequently.

This article was first published on June 28, 2015.
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