BANGKOK - With more and more smokers trying to kick the habit, many merchants decided to start smuggling e-cigarettes and sell them as devices that will help smokers quit.
E-cigarettes - with attractive packaging, different flavours and prices ranging from a few hundred to several thousand baht - were prohibited in Thailand five years ago, but that did not stop the smugglers.
They are openly sold alongside other China-made products at markets such as Khlong Tom and Saphan Lek areas in Bangkok as well as at some shopping malls and second-hand shops. They are also sold online and through social networks.
Other than sellers' claim that the e-cigarettes are safe for secondary smokers and that they do not leave an odour behind, these devices became even more popular when smokers began realising that these were cheaper in the long run than an ordinary pack of cigarettes.
But Khatha Bundithanukul, a member of the Smoking Cessation Pharmacist Volunteers' Network, warned that this product could be more hazardous to health.
Khatha dismissed claims that e-cigarettes had nothing but nicotine, compared to normal cigarettes that contain 6,000 toxins. He said e-cigarettes burned propylene glycol and produced carcinogenic residue. Nicotine content in e-cigarettes was also higher and could cause palpitations and an increase in blood pressure, he pointed out.
Studies have also shown that e-cigarettes do not really help smokers quit, but actually keep them addicted to nicotine and make the cravings worse, he said.
Dr Wanchat Supajaturas, director of the Thai Health Professional Alliance against Tobacco Office, said both types of cigarettes posed the same risks, but people believe that the electronic version is safer because inhaling through a liquid appears less harmful.
He also warned that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not control the liquids used in e-cigarettes and that the Thai Industrial Standards Institute had not tested them.
The liquids used in e-cigarettes contain concentrated nicotine and residues such as propylene glycol, lead, manganese, zinc, mercury, arsenic and cadmium - which could destroy smokers' respiratory system and cause cancer if used in excess over a prolonged period, he said.
Wanchat said Thai youngsters were keen on e-cigarettes because they were fashionable and came in different flavours, adding that a Prathom 3 student was found to be addicted to e-cigarettes after copying his guardian's habits.
He also called on the authorities to quickly find measures to tackle this issue.
Dr Nopporn Cheunklin, deputy chief of the Public Health Ministry's Disease Control Department, said that since e-cigarettes were popular despite being prohibited, the ministry had decided to draft a law and put them under the same controls applied to normal cigarettes and tobacco products.
E-cigarettes are currently prohibited under three laws:
- The 1992 Tobacco Products Control Act, which prohibits the import and sale of cigarette-like products, with violators facing a fine of up to Bt 20,000 (S$774);
- The 1967 Medicine Act, which prohibits the manufacturing, sale and import of modern medical products, with violators facing up to five years in prison and a Bt10,000 fine;
- The 1926 Customs Act, which prohibits persons from bringing untaxed products into the Kingdom and is punishable with a fine that is four times the value of the product plus import tax and/or up to 10 years in jail.
Since these laws have not been that strictly enforced, smugglers continue taking chances.
An online seller, who commented on condition of anonymity, said that though he knew it was illegal, the business was lucrative enough to be worth the risk. His customers were youngsters who keep returning to purchase liquids to top up their e-cigarettes.
He said that though one of his friends, who opened a shop in a Bangkok mall, was arrested, he managed to get away with a Bt20,000 bribe. Since then, he had not been arrested thanks to tip-offs ahead of police raids.