I'll start with a personal statement. I come from a family of smokers, and some have moved to vaping as a conscious choice to reduce harm and foregoing cigarettes entirely.
With it now being hard to find spare parts and even licensed sellers going bust, many have fallen off the wagon not just in my personal circle, but most probably in many parts of the country as well.
As such, the question above needs to be asked not just from a Malaysian standpoint, but also a global one. The Ministry of Health (MOH) has promised a guideline regarding vaping and e-cigarettes for almost a year now.
Honestly, here was Malaysia with entrepreneurs starting and leading in an industry that would have not only reduced harm, but reduced air pollution, with a win-win situation for everyone.
Yet again, we have the government dragging its feet.
And while the MOH continues to give hope yet refuses to mention a final date, Malaysian entrepreneurs in the fledgling industry have gone bust.
But we can’t solely blame the MOH, especially since the global debate has also been confusing. It seems the public health community is divided on whether or not these novel tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and other non-combustible alternatives to cigarettes should be promoted, regulated or banned.
Initial studies have shown that vaping and e-cigarettes are a viable alternative for smokers to reduce health effects.
This includes one from the Public Health England, concluding that e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer compared to cigarettes due to smoking related diseases being mainly caused by harmful by-products that exist in the smoke generated by burning cigarettes.
Another study by Public Health England published results last month, showing that fewer are smoking cigarettes due to the existence of alternatives such as vaping.
Furthermore, the European Union has already come up with regulations on e-cigarettes under their tobacco directive, thus showing an ability to compromise and ensure quality and safety for consumers in terms of devices and product content.
Thus, why is the MOH walking on eggshells regarding this issue?
My guess is that it is due to nations waiting for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to come up with a final say in November.
To be fair, the international health agency has in fact asked for e-cigarettes to be regulated in their last published document on the matter. A recent WHO report admitted the potential benefits of e-cigarettes, vapes and other heat-not-burn products, and recommended that countries should consider regulation instead of a total ban.
It also mentions harm reduction as a tool to improve public health, admitting that switching to an alternative source of nicotine with lower health risks would be a public health achievement.
Malaysia has also been one of the few governments in the world that has taken proactive steps to openly guarantee regulations rather than a ban.
These developments should be applauded.
However, this needs to be said - the WHO has been shifting on this stance for years now.
While also continually bemoaning a future of a billion people smoking in 2025, and most of them being in Asia, and now with research into the matter, perhaps the WHO will take a proper concrete stance and start promoting these alternatives?
It should not instead be hounded by baseless, emotional arguments, swallowed and spewed out as dogma.
Thus, shouldn’t the agency be looking at openly promoting parallel efforts in order to stop people from smoking, mainly through the alternative e-cigarettes and other such innovative devices?
Furthermore, with the WHO also concerned with air pollution reaching 440 parts per million (ppm), it should also look at this in terms of cigarette smoking and its alternatives from an environmental angle.
Is the alternative not also a small yet practical look at reducing a person’s carbon footprint?
After all, instead of burning cigarettes, those who move to e-cigarettes or other novel tobacco products with reduced harm, which can be by means of heating e-liquids or tobacco and generate vapor rather than harmful cigarette smoke.
This is a debate that needs to be brought up in November at the Conference of Parties (COP), which hopefully the Malaysian representatives will bring up in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian MOH at the same time needs to be reminded that it has to cater to Malaysians smokers who are seeking a less harmful alternative to smoking cigarettes and also the local industries first instead of putting priority on a foreign organisation.
It should also stop delaying the release of guidelines for an industry that went from boom to bust in less than a year due to knee jerk reactions not backed by facts or even preliminary credible scientific research.
* Hafidz Baharom is a social observer and a regular contributor. Views expressed are personally his and do not necessarily reflect those of Astro AWANI.