There are restaurants in Kuala Lumpur offering an area to cater to people who “vape”. That’s the term used for inhaling water vapour through an e-cigarette or other personal vaporiser.
Instead of tobacco, customers choose from an array of flavoured liquids to go into their e-cigarettes.
One customer says he used to smoke a pack of cigarettes every two days but switched to vaping several months ago.
It doesn’t smell like tobacco smoke and those who “vape” say it can taste like whatever you want.
Unlike in other countries, there are no regulations on vaping in Malaysia. But anti-vaping campaigners say it’s too much like smoking and have even called for an outright ban, like Singapore is doing.
It also looks like there’s a real tug of war going on, even among the authorities, on how to deal with the fast-emerging vaping culture.
The e-cigs market is also rapidly expanding, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, although little is known so far about the possible long-term health consequences of vaping.
For sure, vaping is a fast-growing business in Malaysia with, some people say, a bright future. But the industry is so disorganised and is faced with many unregulated and arguably dangerous products.
Mevta, or the Malaysia E-Vaporisers and Tobacco Alternative Association, says there are now one million e-cig consumers in Malaysia, and that the industry has generated some RM2 billion in revenue. It says Malaysia is now the second biggest market in the world after the US.
There are more than 1,000 vape shops and vaping outlets in the country offering about 400 local brands of e-vaporisers and “juice” (nicotine infused liquids).
Obviously, the pro-vaping lobby is very strong in Malaysia, scuttling any efforts so far by the Health Ministry to impose a ban on e-cigs.
Just a few days ago, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam told the nation that his ministry was looking at various options, including a total ban on vaping.
But he failed to get the cabinet, at its weekly meeting on Friday morning, to endorse a total ban on e-cigs and vaping.
By Friday evening, Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob was thanking Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on Facebook for his understanding on the issue.
Ismail Sabri said vaping was not even banned in the UK and that smokers were encouraged to switch to vaping due to the low nicotine content.
Dr Subramaniam countered, telling this paper that despite the ministry’s failure to get the cabinet’s nod for a ban, it would apply the same set of rules governing the use of tobacco in order to curb vaping.
He said he was deeply concerned about the “number of people vaping in Malaysia and its possible long-term consequences”.
This sentiment was shared by other cabinet ministers.
“There is a need to regulate. Personally, I am concerned of the social and health impact,” said one.
“But more facts are needed before prescribing the regulations.”
Dr Subramaniam said a ban was still possible in the future, adding that the cabinet fully recognised the health effects of cigarette smoking and vaping.
If it adopts the tobacco-like rules, the ministry will ban the use of e-cigs in areas where it is not allowed to use traditional cigarettes. It may also prohibit the sale of e-vaporiser products to minors. It would make it illegal for minors to possess vaping products.
It would also limit where you can vape. The prohibited areas include schools, hospitals, air-conditioned restaurants, offices and cinemas, and on buses, trains and planes.
The Health Ministry may also impose other regulations, such as compulsory ingredients listing and limiting the levels of certain flavourings.
This is particularly so as flavoured products might make e-cigarettes more attractive to young people.
Reports in other countries have suggested that vaping is becoming increasingly popular among teenagers, even among those who have not previously smoked traditional cigarettes.
Some industry people felt that Dr Subramaniam got his arguments wrong by focusing on the “possible” health dangers of vaping.
“The vape protectors have slammed him back by saying he should ban cigarettes, too. His argument should have been on the addictiveness of the product.”
So far, the battle against the ban and the regulations has been fought by small-time e-vaporiser traders, a move that could later benefit the three big cigarette companies.
The Big Three also produce these vaping products but they have not been introduced in Malaysia yet. They might enter this market once all the regulations are in place.
Right now, it is a niche and growing market. Imagine when it goes mainstream and retail, with vaping products available in every 7-Eleven store and petrol service station. Time will tell.