Govt missed the best timing to regulate e-cigarettes

February 28, 2019 12:14
Smoking e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes is becoming increasingly popular and close to becoming the “mainstream” in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

The government has gazetted its proposed amendments to the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance to ban the importation, manufacturing, sale, distribution and advertisement of alternative smoking products such as electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), heat-not-burn products and herbal cigarettes.

The amendment bill has been tabled to the Legislative Council for first and second reading on Feb. 20.

There is no doubt that the government’s decision to ban the sale of the alternative tobacco products is well-intentioned.

But while the government is cracking down on e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes with an iron fist, it is still allowing the sale of the equally harmful and cancer-causing traditional cigarettes subject to limited regulation. This has raised doubts about its consistency with regard to legislation standards.

The government has argued that it is unrealistic to seek to ban conventional cigarettes because traditional tobacco smoking is already so deeply rooted in our society.

I find this argument flimsy and unconvincing.

According to government figures, in 2018 alone, more than 53 million illicit cigarettes were seized by the Customs and Excise Department.

Of this amount, 8 million were either electronic or heat-not-burn cigarettes, indicating that these electronic nicotine delivery devices are becoming increasingly popular and close to becoming the “mainstream” these days.

I believe the government’s notion that conventional cigarettes are “too deep-rooted to ban” and thus treated with a different measure simply can’t stand up to the most basic scrutiny, because e-cigarettes, to a certain extent, have almost become just as “deep-rooted”.

A few years ago, when e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn cigarettes were not yet popular in our society, there were calls for the government to take swift and decisive action to step up regulation of these alternative smoking products.

Unfortunately, because of the government’s hesitation to address the issue in the last couple of years, these new alternative smoking products are now selling like hotcakes and becoming highly popular among smokers.

In other words, the administration has already missed the best window of opportunity for regulating e-cigarettes or heat-not-burn cigarettes.

And so, now that authorities have decided to clamp down on e-cigarettes, expect a backlash from those who have already gotten used to these new smoking products.

Worse still, we can expect a surge in the sales of electronic and heat-not-burn cigarettes in the coming days as it is very likely that smokers will rush to stockpile them before they are taken off the open market.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 16

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist