In a forum held, Malaysia-based free market think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and Philippines-based Minimal Government Thinkers brought together various stakeholders from the Southeast Asian region to discuss how to regulate alternative tobacco products and how consumers can contribute to the creation of proper policy in this respect.
Atty. Rohbert Ambros of the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) said that while the agency is primarily mandated to regulate the local tobacco industry, it has included e-cigarettes in its import processing system since 2016. This is mainly because there’s nicotine content on e-juices and that there was no agency that issue rules and regulations on these products.
NTA data showed that there is a big reduction in cigarette and cigar production trends from 90 million sticks in 2013 to 60 million in 2017 due to strict regulations and higher excise taxes. While there is also a reduction on the rate of adult smokers, there is still a question of where the cigarettes come from if the legal production is reduced to only 21 percent. Ambros said the possible scenario is that there is illicit manufacturing and smuggling.
“With the strict regulation and imposition of excise taxes, we can see the trend that it will happen also to e-cigarettes. Why? Because vapers will not tend to stop using the product when the source will be regulated. They will look for other alternatives just like similar products, but these similar products came from illicit trading and smuggling,” Ambros said.
Bienvenido Oplas Jr. of the Minimal Government Thinkers also argued that these regulations will only lead to the proliferation of the illegal smuggling of alternative tobacco products which Ambros touched upon. He said that the regulations are only encouraging black market behavior since consumers are cut off from their main source of e-cigarettes. He cited Australia as an example, stating that the country saw its illegal tobacco smuggling rate increase from only 11.5 percent in 2012 to 15 percent in 2017. Oplas argued that overregulated e-cigarettes make the black market and illicit trade lucrative.
Meanwhile, Dr. Satriya Wibawa Suhardjo of the Universitas Padjajaran, Indonesia said that his country has a smoking problem, citing children as early as 7 years old are smoking. While quitting is the best option, the reality is that not everyone can or want to do it.
In its bid to find possible policy solutions that government could adopt to resolve public health issues like smoking, it came across the concept of tobacco harm reduction. He cited the US Food and Drugs Administration claim that people smoke for the nicotine. While nicotine is addictive and it is what people enjoy from cigarette use, it is not the primary cause of smoking-related disease but the tar from tobacco-burning.
There is a call for innovative products that allow nicotine to be delivered, including e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products, and other smokeless tobacco products. According to Suhardjo’s research, these are more than 90 percent safer than cigarettes. The Indonesian government has recognized e-cigarettes and other alternative products as acceptable starting November 2017, which means that alternative products can be legally sold and consumed in Indonesia.
While there are currently about 1 million e-cigarette users in Indonesia, this is still small compared to the number of smokers in the country. For them to switch to better alternatives, one important factor is having proper regulation. For Suhardjo, it is crucial that these alternative tobacco products are not regulated the same way as cigarettes to reflect their differences. If consumers are educated of the benefits, they can make informed decisions about their health.
“The aim of vaping regulations should be to ensure consumer safety and establish minimum standards for products and raw materials. Such standards will push the industry to keep investing in product safety. Moreover, regulators need to impose information disclosure requirements to educate the public,” IDEAS CEO Ali Salman said.
For their part, representatives from an alliance of consumer groups from Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines pushed for the promotion of e-cigarette use because of its strong stand on harm reduction. Addressing the forum, the vapers groups took the position that the harm in smoking is due to the tar content, not on nicotine which is addictive but not harmful. E-cigarettes, which do not contain tar, are safer alternatives to existing tobacco products. The group stated that limiting e-cigarettes through overregulation is denying consumers a healthier alternative choice.
The group agreed that in order to address the issue on regulation, constant dialogue and communication between the government and consumer groups is crucial in the creation of regulatory policies, as they can provide the insight needed in matters such as consumer safety.
“Being a new product, there is no right way yet to approach e-cigarettes. In order to do this, the government and the consumer sector must work together to form a regulatory framework that can benefit the public sector, consumers, and the vaping industry as a whole,” said Peter Paul Dator, President of The Vapers Philippines.
Dator, together with Azrul Hafiz Zainuddin of the Malaysian Organization of Vape Entity, Asa Saligupta of the End Cigarette Smoke Thailand, and Dimasz Jeremia of the Indonesian Vapers Association launched the online campaign #VapersBeHeard and a petition in change.org to urge the WHO to listen to the demands of Asian Vapers that alternative products are better for smokers than cigarettes.
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