22 May 2019
In order to protect the health of our next generation, it is of the utmost importance that we educate our kids against taking their first puff of cigarette. Photo: AFP/Reuters
In order to protect the health of our next generation, it is of the utmost importance that we educate our kids against taking their first puff of cigarette. Photo: AFP/Reuters

Time to wake up to threat posed by e-cigarettes to school kids

The government plans to introduce regulations on the sale of both electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and heat-not-burn tobacco products (HNBs), which would allow these products to be sold openly and legally subject to certain conditions.

The decision has caused widespread concern among educators, doctors and parents that it might open the floodgates to all sorts of new tobacco products and eventually drive up the smoking rate among teenagers in the city.

According to a survey carried out by the HKU School of Public Health and the Department of Health, at least one in every two seniors in the city who died at the age of 65 or above was killed by smoking.

The study has also inferred that a person could face up to a 50 percent or above risk of dying of diseases caused by tobacco use if he or she starts becoming a regular smoker during adolescence.

A report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that a person who has never tried a cigarette before the age of 21 is highly unlikely to become a regular smoker for the rest of his life.

As such, in order to protect the health of our next generation, it is of the utmost importance that we educate our kids against taking their first puff of cigarette.

After years of concerted efforts by the government and non-governmental organizations, smoking rates in Hong Kong already fell substantially from 23.3 percent in 1982 to only 10 percent in 2017.

During the same period, smoking rates among teenagers aged between 15 and 19 also dropped from 4.2 percent to just 1 percent.

Unfortunately, the influx of e-cigarettes and HNBs in recent years has already begun to undermine what we have accomplished in smoking prevention.

To make things worse, these newly available handheld nicotine delivery products have already invaded our schools.

A recent study showed that in the 2016/17 school year, 1.4 percent of primary and 8.7 percent of secondary school students admitted that they had tried e-cigarettes at least once.

And 0.1 percent of secondary school students ranging from the first form and the fifth form said they had tried HNBs before.

The findings should serve as a wake-up call for us as to the pace with which these new but equally harmful tobacco products are proliferating on school campuses.

Over the years, our citizens have already become highly conscious about the health risks of smoking as a result of the government’s intense public education campaign.

However, today an increasing number of teenagers in our city have fallen under the wrong impression that e-cigarettes or HNBs are much less harmful than conventional cigarettes because they don’t contain nicotine, thanks to the misinformation provided by importers and dealers.

The problem has been further exacerbated by the fact that these new tobacco products are cheap and easy to buy, and many teenagers simply find them irresistibly cool and trendy.

As a lot of teacher-counselors have recently told me, based on what they have discovered on social media, it is an open secret that e-cigarettes and HNBs are getting increasingly popular not only among secondary school students but also with primary school students.

I have also learned numerous cases in which students were caught in the act of smoking e-cigarettes between classes.

What is even more shocking is that some parents actually bought their children e-cigarettes or HNBs as gifts, suggesting that there is a severe lack of vigilance against the health risks of these products among the public.

Based on the findings of tests carried out by the government on e-cigarettes, even though some of them don’t contain nicotine, they are just as harmful as conventional cigarettes because they contain other cancer-causing agents such as formaldehyde.

As far as HNBs are concerned, all the samples tested by the government contain virtually the same amount of nicotine and tar as conventional cigarettes, thereby completely debunking the popular myth that these new tobacco products are “safer”.

Back in May 2015, the Food and Health Bureau told the Legco panel on health services that it was committed to banning the importation, manufacturing, sale, distribution and promotion of e-cigarettes and HNBs in accordance with the recommendations made by the WHO.

Given that, our government’s recent backpedaling on the issue and its decision to legalize the importation and sale of these harmful products are definitely outrageous and totally unacceptable.

How could members of the education and medical sectors not step forward and cry a resounding “no” to these products in the face of the government’s cold feet about outlawing them?

In order to safeguard the health of our children, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union has already set up a special task force to keep a close eye on the issue, and is drawing up a petition urging the administration to keep its 2015 promise to completely ban e-cigarettes and HNBs.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 23

Translation by Alan Lee 

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member from the education sector

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