The police in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, have detained 32 suspects in more than 50 cities in a crackdown on the illegal importation and sale of IQOS smokeless cigarettes, a label of tobacco giant Phillip Morris.
The group, which imported the e-cigarettes from abroad, allegedly sold them in 18 of China's 34 provinces, municipalities and regions. The sales reached 280 million yuan (S$55 million), Yangzhou police said last week.
IQOS is a system that heats but does not burn tobacco. Unlike traditional e-cigarettes that typically heat a nicotine-laced liquid, IQOS uses real tobacco to create an experience similar to that of smoking cigarettes.
The police said they were alerted to the imports earlier this year, when a consumer bought some IQOS e-cigarettes on the internet and thought they were fake because of the unusual taste. The person later reported the incident to police after failing in negotiations with the seller.
Though police later confirmed that the e-cigarettes bought online were real, they said the seller was involved in illegal business operations and will be punished.
According to the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, e-cigarettes contain tobacco components and therefore belong in the tobacco products category. The product should be managed by the administration and cannot be sold without its approval.
China does not have any regulations or laws that allow people to import or sell IQOS products in the country.
Zhang Jianshu, president of the Beijing Tobacco Control Association, said the rapid development of e-cigarettes in China can pose a danger to people.
"Similar to traditional tobacco products, e-cigarettes contain nicotine that is harmful to health," Zhang said. "Though some e-cigarette products advertise that they help people quit smoking, few people really do."
Electronic nicotine delivery systems include e-cigarettes and vaping devices. They contain toxic substances and contaminants in aerosols that can result in pathological changes to the human body, according to the World Health Organisation.
"Many teenagers and young people have become fans of e-cigarettes, and quite a number of them will turn to traditional smoking eventually," Zhang said. "The products not only do nothing to help quit smoking but provide new opportunities for young people to become smokers."
Dong Wei, who works for a financial company in Nanjing, said he had tried various kinds of e-cigarette products in the market but had returned to smoking cigarettes.
"At first, it was fun to do vaping. It produced large amounts of smoke that could cover my whole face," Dong said. "But due to complicated procedures and a lighter tobacco flavor, I dropped them, as did most of my friends."
Zhang said: "Some cities in China, such as Hangzhou and Shenzhen, include e-cigarettes in their tobacco control regulations. We hope that the country will put forward standards and regulations for e-cigarette production and management soon."
According to a report by Beijing consultancy Guanyantianxia last year, there were between 1.5 and 2 million e-cigarette smokers in China, while the number of smokers in the country exceeded 300 million.
Sales of e-cigarettes in China reached 3 billion yuan in 2016, a fourfold increase from the previous year. According to the report, China is the largest producer of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes. It exported 90 per cent of its e-cigarette products.