For the past two weeks, Putrajaya has been on the fence on whether to ban vaping followed by an interim decision not to. Malaysians across the internet have been similarly divided: some insist on the merits of vaping, others exclaim over the vape device that recently burst into flames in an aircraft while associating it with general health fears.
Action was taken by the Health Ministry yesterday, however, as raids were conducted on several vape stores to confiscate juices (flavoured liquids which are vaporised). The reason given was that the products contained nicotine and should be regulated.
There seems to be a lack of research and uncertainty over the precise extent of health risks or benefits linked to vaping. The Fatwa Council in Malaysia recently declared it haram, describing vaping as “dangerous, wasteful and harmful to health”. Yet Malaysia has the second largest vape industry worldwide, just behind the United States. Its very first vaping convention saw 35,000 visitors.
Some quarters claim that vaping, compared to smoking, reduces the chance of smokers relapsing and poses less damage to the arteries. Even if harmful in any way, vaping could still be the lesser evil next to its tar-infused cousin, which contains an enormous amount of cancer-causing substances.
Vaping may also save smokers money in the long run, as the only initial investment is on the device (termed “mod” by the vaping community). A wide range of refillable juices are available, and these last longer than a pack of cigarettes for the average smoker.
Naj is an ex-smoker who has fully switched to vaping. “I don’t even feel like smoking anymore”, he tells me. The initial transition was difficult when he fell sick for over a month – experiencing withdrawal symptoms typical in many smokers – but eventually stabilised. Naj even reports feeling healthier, lighter and being able to breathe more easily while at the gym.
“I don’t even feel like smoking anymore.”
Andy, owner of Vaperdise – one of the first vape businesses to set up shop in Kota Damansara – tells a similar story. His former chain-smoking habit was taking a toll on his health, and he decided to try vaping after seeing someone else puffing on a mod while on holiday. It wasn’t an easy switch, but he gradually felt better and recommended vaping to his friends.
“Vaperdise is unique as most of our juices come from the US,” says Gillian, co-owner of Vaperdise. “These are FDA and ISO certified, making it mandatory for ingredients to be listed on bottles with standardised labels.”
While Andy agrees that the vape industry in Malaysia should be regulated to ensure quality, he finds the government’s current methods rather heavy-handed, as proposals for regulation should have been made on their part before raiding stores and costing the owners thousands of ringgit in losses. Andy hopes that laws and a “category” can be made for the vape community, as they have no form of legal guidance or recourse at the moment. “It’s not fair. They need to think of the citizens and their business,” says Andy.
However, those pushing for a crackdown on vapes cite the potential long term dangers to health. The Center for Environmental Health in the US conducted a study finding that vaping may not be effective in helping smokers to quit after all. Results were no different or better when compared to nicotine patches and other approved treatments. More worryingly, the study found samples to have illegal amounts of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. These chemicals can cause cancer, genetic defects and affect fertility levels.
Vape juices could literally contain anything, from flavouring to narcotics. Most don’t list their ingredients and are – in Malaysia, for example – homemade and distributed around. Worse are those mass produced in other countries and sold cheaply to get more bang for the buck.
This may be an issue in schools especially, where students could be inhaling illegal drugs on the pretext of puffing on vapours. The UK has legislated against the sale of vaporisers to under-18s.
With the steep price hike on cigarettes this week, Andy and Gillian foresee the possibility of many smokers switching to vaping as it is more affordable.
With the steep price hike on cigarettes this week, Andy and Gillian foresee the possibility of many smokers switching to vaping as it is more affordable. Looking at this and the Health Ministry’s clampdown on vape stores, they hope for more constructive dialogue and solutions between MEVTA (Malaysian E-Vaporisers and Tobacco Alternative) and the government so that the vape community won’t have to go underground.
When asked whether Vaperdise sells vape products to minors, Andy explains, “It’s like cigarettes. You can decide whether you want to consume nicotine only after you’re 18.” MEVTA has also made efforts in this regard, as vaping should be an option for smokers to quit, instead of a cool trend for teenagers to pick up. Paradoxically, some non-smokers have taken up vaping.
Tan Han Wee, a non-smoker who used to frequent shisha joints, finds vaping to be a good portable alternative: “So convenient, I can bring it everywhere.” He also saw a business opportunity when the vaping trend boomed in Malaysia earlier this year. Bringing in Billet Box products from the US, he has sold more than 20 units to date. Han Wee acquires most of his customers from Facebook and the general Malaysian vaping community.
Vaping devices can be expensive, with some costing up to thousands of ringgit. Premium ones form collectibles for vaping enthusiasts, and can fetch a good resale value. However, Han Wee mentions that the hype around vaping devices in Malaysia has slowed down in recent months, in light of the unstable economy and the fact that most of the vaping community have already bought their own vaporisers.
Malaysia’s Health Ministry is now swiftly moving to disrupt the vape industry, on the pretext of its products containing nicotine. Does its novelty seem more worrying than the proven risks of cigarettes, which contain far more nicotine and other substances? Or could these decisions be made from an economic standpoint, where big tobacco companies are facing losses with the slew of vape businesses coming up?
Malaysia’s thousands of vapers are waiting for answers and clear regulation. Whether people are vaping to quit smoking, to save money or just to look cool, one thing is certain: this is a trend that will not be blowing over anytime soon.
Photos by Lyn Ong
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