DESPITE the controversy surrounding e-cigarettes, the use of electronic nicotine delivery systems won't be banned in Malaysia.
National Institute of Respiratory Medicine director Datuk Dr Abdul Razak Muttalif says e-cigs are legal - for now.
The Government won't follow in the footsteps of neighbours like Brunei, Singapore, and Thailand in banning e-cigs but it would look at how to effectively regulate the industry instead, he says.
"We are aware that some people have misused the devices to do drugs but there are no plans for the Government to ban vaping.
"There are many e-cig users who say that these devices are helpful for them to quit smoking.
"The Health Ministry wants to regulate e-cigs but there's a need to look at various other studies and see what the global community is doing. We cannot be rash," he explains.
In 2013, the ministry had ordered a study on the side effects of e-cigs and shisha before deciding whether to regulate or ban them.
The technical committee, which handed over its report to the Health Ministry three months ago, was chaired by Dr Abdul Razak.
He says regulating the industry is not easy because e-cig users, known as vapers, are buying their devices and juices online.
"It's also quite a challenge because the regulations have to cover two components: the electronic device and the liquids," he adds, when commenting on the results from a recent online poll of smokers' views on alternatives to conventional cigarettes.
On Monday, regional consumer advocacy group factasia.org released its survey of adult Malaysian smokers; 404 people had responded.
Similar surveys were also conducted in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, and New Zealand.
Factasia.org estimates that there are between 250,000 and 1 million adult vapers in Malaysia. And, based on the poll, the majority of them want e-cigs to be widely available and properly regulated.
The Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations senior vice-president and Malaysia Council for Tobacco Control ex-president K. Koris Atan remains cautious.
The Government must invest in more research as not enough is known about the health impact of the devices and juices, he feels.
Koris - who is also the Penang Consumer Protection Association president and Smoke-Free Penang Programme publicity, promotion and information cochairman - says it's undeniable that e-cigs are the latest tool smokers are embracing to help them quit.
"At least smokers are turning away from conventional tobacco cigarettes because of e-cigs. But I'm worried that they'll end up abusing drugs with the devices instead of quitting.
"We need to hear what cessation experts have to say."
Whether or not e-cigs are beneficial, they're openly sold and easily accessible, he observes.
Consumers are buying them, so the Government must make sure that whatever is out there meets national safety and quality standards, he says.
"At the night markets, e-cigs are sold cheaply. Who's checking on the quality?
"Malaysia should not be a dumping ground for poor quality products that are hazardous.
"Once standards are set, enforcement must come in. Consumers are now very vulnerable when it comes to e-cigs."
At an interview in Kuala Lumpur last Friday, factasia.org cofounder Heneage Mitchell said findings across the region show very little variation.
In the Malaysian poll, all of the respondents knew about e-cigs, he says. And a whopping three-quarters of vapers surveyed would consider buying e-cigs through other channels or countries if they were not legally sold here.
Already, about a quarter of the respondents get their e-cigs online, Mitchell says, adding that the majority want them to be regulated and made widely available.
"They say banning e-cigs, if it ever comes to that, won't stop them from puffing. So a ban will just push the industry underground," he says.
Mitchell adds that there is an urgent need to protect consumers by introducing trade quality standard e-cigs, as more than half of those polled have either vaped or are vaping.
"Every Government has a duty to protect consumers.
"Age-of-sale regulations should be introduced to deter youths from vaping.
"Without regulation, you'll lose control of the industry," he says.
Nicotine and other ingredients can be regulated in the same way that food or other consumer products are, he says.
Typically, the liquids which are vaped contain water, propylene glycol, glycerin, flavouring, and nicotine, he says, stressing that a properly manufactured e-cig should use ingredients that are safe for human consumption and pulmonary inhalation according to global health and quality standards.
"Likewise, the hardware needs regulation. If a mobile phone manufacturer is required to produce batteries that meet safety standards, so should e-cig makers.
"We don't want leaky devices because nicotine can be absorbed through the skin, nor do we want a battery that blows up in your face."
Yet in many countries, untested, unregulated, and potentially dangerous devices are openly on sale alongside responsibly produced and extensively tested products from reputable manufacturers, he laments.
And presently, consumers have no way of knowing which are reliable and which aren't, he points out.
"They have a right to know what they are vaping."
Factasia.org cofounder John Boley says more than three-quarters of smokers surveyed would consider switching to e-cigs if the devices and liquids met quality and safety standards and were conveniently available.
Three quarters of vapers surveyed say they turned to vaping as an alternative to smoking regular cigarettes, he adds.
Factasia.org is a consumer-oriented advocate for debate about regulating the rights of adults throughout Asia to choose to use tobacco or other nicotine-related products. It doesn't engage in manufacturing or distribution.