Five fast facts about Hong Kong’s burning debate over e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn devices and other alternative tobacco products

Big Tobacco and medical groups are smoking mad over the government’s bid to treat newer forms of smoking as conventional cigarettes. Here’s a breakdown of the issue

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 June, 2018, 8:32am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 June, 2018, 8:32am

Electronic cigarettes and other tobacco alternatives, including so-called heat-not-burn products and herbal cigarettes, has sparked debate in Hong Kong again after the government recently proposed legislation to regulate those products in a way similar to conventional cigarettes.

What are e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn products and herbal cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a solution, called e-liquid, in a cartridge to deliver an aerosol that users inhale in a way similar to conventional cigarettes. The use of an e-cigarette is also known as vaping. The e-liquid is a mixture including propylene glycol – a chemical added to food, cosmetics and some medicines to retain moisture – flavourings and other additives.

E-cigarettes are also hazardous to health

For heat-not-burn products, tobacco is heated up, rather than combusted, by an electronic device. Users could then inhale the aerosol, which contains nicotine and other chemicals. Herbal cigarettes, as their name suggests, are made with plants, herbs or fruits instead of tobacco, but look like conventional cigarettes. They are consumed via combustion.

What is the government’s latest proposal in regulating e-cigarettes and other alternative tobacco products?

Currently there is no specific legislation governing e-cigarettes or heat-not-burn products in Hong Kong. Last week, the government proposed to regulate these products similar to conventional cigarettes and tobacco products. That means the sale of those products to minors would be banned, packaging would require health warnings and all advertising would be prohibited, among other restrictions. Manufacturers would be taxed on the tobacco component of the products.

Why are medical experts and the tobacco industry unhappy with the proposal?

Medical organisations had called for a total ban. Dr Gabriel Leung, dean of University of Hong Kong’s faculty of medicine, said on Tuesday that regulations would “normalise” e-cigarettes and other products which would be a “step backward”. Doctors had also expressed fears that the alternative products were a gateway to cigarettes and could create a new generation of nicotine addicts.

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

The tobacco industry also argued that alternative products should not be regulated the same way as cigarettes. Coalition of Tobacco Affairs said e-cigarettes were tobacco free and therefore should not be taxed in the same way as cigarettes. Industry giant Philip Morris Asia Limited also said its specifically designed tobacco sticks used in its heat-not-burn product are “fundamentally different from cigarettes”.

Are e-cigarettes and other alternative tobacco products available in Hong Kong?

There is no legislation banning the sale of e-cigarettes or heat-not-burn products. Those products could be bought online or at some retail shops in the city. But without specific regulations, the quality and safety of products bought in Hong Kong are uncertain.

Fewer smokers in Hong Kong but among those who light up, more are turning to e-cigarettes, survey reveals

While the number of users in the city is believed to be low, the government had said children already had access to e-cigarettes and other alternative tobacco products. A University of Hong Kong study conducted from 2016 to 2017 found that 2,340 Primary Four to Six pupils and 29,380 Form One to Six pupils had used e-cigarettes.

How are e-cigarettes and other new tobacco products regulated in other countries?

There are 83 countries with specific regulations for e-cigarettes. Twenty-seven of those countries have a total ban. According to a Legislative Council report, heat-not-burn products are still relatively new to the market and regulatory framework for the products is still be developed in many countries. In South Korea, they are seen as a type of e-cigarettes. But in the US, the Food and Drug Administration has not yet decided whether to allow the product on the market.