Standing in front of a sign that reads “we don’t blow smoke”, Alex let a mushroom cloud rush from his mouth. The white shroud quickly faded in the poky, cluttered shop – named Vapempire – located on one of the upper storeys of Kuala Lumpur’s Berjaya Times Square mall.
“It’s cheesecake flavour,” said the 27-year-old store employee, as he handed over a chunky vapouriser to sample the gaseous amuse-bouche and then proceeded to scramble through dozens of bottles to find concoctions he made himself. One imbued the potency and taste of whiskey with the flavours of a US tobacco brand. Others contained no nicotine at all, just redolent aromas.
Underneath a glass counter sat a hoard of devices and liquid-filled bottles for vaping. Compared to cigarettes, vapourisers – more commonly known as e-cigarettes – are generally believed to contain fewer carcinogenic chemicals and are less harmful, although this is hotly debated, particularly due to a limited numbers of studies and scientific complexity, which has led to many sensationalist media headlines.
Following the release of a major report in the US in November, a headline in the Telegraph stated: “E-cigarettes are no safer than smoking tobacco”. Replying in the Guardian days later, the deputy director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, Linda Bauld, insisted that there is “still no evidence [that] e-cigarettes are as harmful as smoking”.
Still, as scientists continue to debate the health implications of e-cigarettes, many vaping advocates in Malaysia maintain that, as Alex put it: “Vaping has helped me quit smoking cigarettes.”
“Vaping has saved lives,” said Norman Ismail, secretary general of the Malaysia E-Vaporizers and Tobacco Alternative Association (MEVTA). “As ex-smokers, we have changed to vaping. And some have even quit both, due to being a part of the support community. [Vapourisers] do not contain 4,000-plus chemicals and carcinogens, but only four elements you find in your daily life and food intake. So how can that be damaging?”
“In 2015, we estimated that the number of vaping shops in Kuala Lumpur was about 600. But now, it’s not more than 150. Every day we hear of shops being closed”
Vaping has been banned in Thailand, Singapore and Cambodia, while several other Southeast Asian nations are mulling prohibition. This has made Malaysia one of its last bastions in the region, and such was vaping’s popularity that, in November, GlobalPost dubbed Malaysia “Asia’s vaping wonderland”.
MEVTA estimates that the country’s vaping industry was worth almost $670m in 2015. This is calculated based on the health ministry’s estimation that there were 1.2 million vapers, and the assumption that each bought a 30ml e-liquid refill once a week – this excludes hardware and accessories that would significantly raise the industry’s value.
However, if Malaysia could have been called a vaping wonderland just a few months ago, today it is beginning to resemble a paradise lost.
Ismail told Southeast Asia Globe that vaping remains a grey area in Malaysia; it is not banned but “has yet to be regulated and legalised”, he said. However, this is set to change in the coming months. Late last year, the Ministry of Health announced it was working on laws to regulate vaping, from where one can and cannot smoke to rules on the manufacture and sale of products. It has also been suggested that liquids will only be sold by licensed pharmacists and registered medical practitioners.
“We’re only regulating the use and sale of vapes,” deputy health minister Hilmi Yahaya told local reporters in December, adding that the government had no intention of implementing an outright ban, although state-level governments can choose to do so, as those in the states of Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Johor and Kelantan have. The ministry has promised that the regulations will be drafted by the end of this year.
If regulations are passed, Malaysia would not be the only country in the world seeking to control the e-cigarette market. The European Union is mulling the EU Tobacco Products Directive that could see e-cigarettes sold with labels warning users that they contain highly addictive substances, and would ban the sale of liquids with more than 20mg of nicotine per ml (vaping liquids are sold with varying degrees of nicotine strength).
MEVTA has publicly backed the government’s decision to regulate the industry, and suggested that others in favour of vaping do so too, but has called on the Ministry of Health to conduct a fair review and assessment of the vaping industry and its health effects. It has also been keen to stress that vaping should be seen primarily as a way to stop smoking cigarettes, and not as a cultural trend as some contend it has become.
However, according to Ismail, Malaysia’s Ministry of Health has long been the vapers’ “public enemy number one”.
“With the current scare tactics imposed by the health ministry on the harm of vaping, the numbers of vapers have declined tremendously,” he said. “In 2015, we estimated that the number of vaping shops in Kuala Lumpur was about 600. But now, it’s not more than 150. Every day we hear of shops being closed.”
There has been a great number of discrepancies in how the government has responded to the practice. The deputy director-general of public health, Lokman Hakim Sulaiman, told the media in November that the drop in the number of vapers – reportedly from 800,000 in October 2014 to just 200,000 seven months later – was reflective of the public’s view of it as “something that is harmful”.
Last year, Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council advocated to make vaping haram, or forbidden, in Islam. “It is detrimental to health,” chairman Abdul Shukor Husin told reporters. “Islam forbids its followers from using things that can harm them directly or indirectly; immediately or gradually that can lead to death, damage the body, result in dangerous illnesses or harm the mind.” However, cigarettes have been considered haram for years, and this has done little to prevent the country’s smokers from lighting up.
On the back of a declining number of vapers, a number of Malaysian vape distributors have pre-empted the worst and begun “pivoting their business to the export market”, as Jeremy Ong, co-founder of online vape shop VapeClubMY, told FreeMalaysiaToday in May.
Still, Ong warned that those who used to vape might simply return to smoking cigarettes. “Are the public health officials pleased about this?” he asked rhetorically.
The World Health Organisation’s latest report on tobacco use in Malaysia, conducted in 2011, estimated that 44% of men and 1% of women smoke cigarettes regularly, consuming, on average, 14 sticks per day. The report also stated that more than 10,000 Malaysians die from smoking-related illnesses every year.
For health officials and vaping advocates around the world, the major question that needs to be answered is whether it is less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. For Malaysia’s supporters of vaping the answer is a resounding yes. And they argue that by cracking down on vaping, either through rhetoric or legislation, the government is forcing a large number of its citizens back onto cigarettes, the world’s number one cause of preventable death. The government, however, claims only to be trying to regulate an industry that, to date, has been uncontrolled and experienced rapid growth. And neither is it the only country in the world to be doing so.
When asked about the future of vaping in Malaysia, Ismail responded: “It’s currently bleak, but there’s always hope. And hope is better than nothing at all.”
A litigious state of mind
Transnational tobacco companies are now suing governments
In December 2011, the Australian government introduced pioneering legislation to force tobacco companies to sell their cigarettes in drab brown, logo-free packaging with prominent pictorial health warnings. The plain packaging was supposed to reduce the number of smokers and, according to some studies, was working.
Yet before the bill had even been approved by parliament, Philip Morris Asia, which is based in Hong Kong and owns the Australian affiliate, filed a lawsuit against the government. The firm argued that the plain packaging regulation violated a free trade agreement between the two countries signed in 1993.
More than four years after the legal battle began, an international arbitration court ruled in the Australian government’s favour. Philip Morris also initiated legal proceedings against Uruguay in 2010 over its anti-smoking legislation, for which the South American country had received accolades from the World Health Organisation. The tobacco giant wants $25m in compensation; the case has yet to be decided.
“The tactic at the moment of the transnationals is to challenge governments. And they never win; they only one they’ve ever won was in [the US] of all places. They challenged the introduction of pictorial health warnings, and that has been put on hold because of that legal challenge. But everywhere else in the world, it takes two to three years, or longer, and it’s intimidatory: it’s a chill effect [that discourages] other countries doing the same,” explained Judith Mackay, a leading tobacco control advocate and senior advisor to Vital Strategies.