Hong Kong set to regulate e-cigarettes in same manner as traditional smoking products under new proposals

Selling such products to minors will be banned, packaging will require health warnings and advertising will be prohibited under long-awaited plan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 June, 2018, 9:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2018, 8:06pm

Electronic cigarettes and other new tobacco alternatives would be regulated in the same way as conventional smoking products under proposals released by the Hong Kong government on Tuesday.

Under the long-awaited proposals, which were set to be discussed at the Legislative Council next week, the sale of e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn products and herbal cigarettes to minors would be banned, packaging would require health warnings and all advertising would be prohibited, among other things.

In addition, manufacturers would be taxed on the tobacco component of the products.

But urging caution, the tobacco industry called on lawmakers not to rely on “poor advice” provided by the World Health Organisation, from which the government said it had taken recommendations for its proposals. The WHO has urged countries to restrict the sale, promotion and use of e-cigarettes.

The city’s antismoking body, the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH), however, expressed disappointment over the proposed regulations, saying e-cigarettes should be banned completely.

Announcing the move, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said: “Other than the health impact, I am worried that e-cigarettes and other new tobacco products will begin to become the smoking gateway [for youths].

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“Once they have a habit of using these products, it is possible that they will turn to smoking.”

Worldwide, the use of e-cigarettes – known as vaping – has become a multibillion-dollar industry with hundreds of brands, according to the WHO. In Hong Kong, vaping products are commonly found in trendy shopping malls frequented by youngsters in areas such as Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, and cost between HK$100 (US$12.80) and HK$500.

Citing a survey in 2017, the government’s 14-page paper on its proposals said 1.4 per cent of Primary Four to Six pupils had used e-cigarettes, down from 2.6 per cent the previous year.

The number of Secondary One to Six students who had used or were current users was 8.7 per cent and 0.8 per cent respectively, according to the findings of the University of Hong Kong survey.

While the paper said the number of smokers using e-cigarettes was “not yet significant”, it added that the city needed a regime to prevent youths and non-smokers from picking up the smoking habit.

“Once such use has taken root it could be very difficult to introduce meaningful regulation,” the paper said.

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It explained that seven samples of heat-not-burn products tested by the government last year had all been found with nicotine and tar, addictive and harmful substances. While herbal cigarettes do not contain tobacco or nicotine, they may still produce toxic substances and carcinogens.

Chan stressed that it was the government’s target to push the smoking rate below last year’s 10 per cent, one of the lowest figures in the world.

COSH chairman Antonio Kwong Cho-shing said the group was disappointed with the lack of progress the government had made since it suggested introducing a ban on e-cigarettes in 2015.

“We have noticed the prevalence of e-cigarettes in recent years. Even they are advertised as trendy items, attracting the youth. But we want to reiterate that there is no safe tobacco product and more studies have found that e-cigarettes also contain harmful substances,” Kwong said.

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But a spokeswoman for Philip Morris Asia Limited, a leading tobacco company, disagree and said she understood from international antismoking advocate Clive Bates’ online blog that there were criticisms against the WHO’s “poor advice”.

“[The products] that do not involve combustion do not create smoke and are inevitably much less harmful – it is a matter of basic chemistry and physics,” Bates posted a letter online to Legco, highlighted by the Philip Morris.

The harmful chemical agents in smoke are either not present in vapour aerosols at detectable levels or are detectable at levels one to three orders of magnitude lower than in cigarette smoke, Bates mentioned in the letter.

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The spokeswoman added that Bates said the WHO had a tendency to emphasis threats over opportunities, “with an implicit suggestion that the best policy is to prohibit these much-safer products even though cigarettes would remain widely available”.

Nav Lalji, chairman of the Asian Vape Association, said that while vaping products should not put on a par with cigarettes, he agreed the proposals were moving in the right direction as long as they were sensible and protected the public.

“The interest [in youths smoking e-cigarettes] is there,” said Lalji, owner of a vape vendor. “I won’t say it’s at zero per cent, because they do get access through online platforms. But we don’t sell it to minors. We require proof of ID or age identification.”


Coming under control

E-cigarettes: battery-powered devices that heat a solution in a cartridge/tank with a metallic coil to deliver an aerosol that users inhale through a mouthpiece, in a way that simulates the act of cigarette smoking.

Heat-not-burn products: an electronic device heats tobacco – but does not burn it – and generates a nicotine-containing vapour.

Herbal cigarettes: made with plants, herbs or fruits, they contain no tobacco but are consumed via a combustion process.

Source: Legislative Council Panel on Health Services; Philip Morris International