Campaigners see total ban on e-cigarettes and HTPs

September 13, 2021 08:54
Photo: Reuters

Seven years ago LegCo started to discuss the regulation of electronic cigarettes. Finally, public health advocates believe, it will next month pass a bill that outlaws the import, production, distribution, sale and promotion of new smoking products.

It will be a major step to reducing the city’s smoking rate, already one of the lowest in the world at 10.2 per cent. Sophia Chan, Secretary for Food and Health, last week put the target at 7.8 per cent in 2025, with a long-term goal of creating a “smoke-free” Hong Kong.

The Smoking (Public Health) (Amendment) Bill 2019, submitted by the government, calls for a total ban on alternative smoking products, including e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products (HTPs) and herbal cigarettes. It was first submitted in 2019. It went through scrutiny in 15 meetings and three deputation meetings but LegCo did not enact the bill.
Last Friday it cleared the first hurdle of going through the bills committee of LegCo.

The government wants LegCo to approve the law before the end of its session in October and it could be in force as early as next April.

The Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) said that, in recent years, evidence of the harms of alternative smoking products had been accumulating. “Studies found that HTPs and e-cigarettes contain harmful and carcinogenic substances that are in higher level than in traditional cigarettes. Some toxic substances in HTPs are even uncommon in traditional cigarettes.

“Hong Kong is facing the threat of alternative smoking products invading the market and endangering public health. We must maintain tobacco control impetus and seize the chance to nip in the bud to ban alternative smoking products before they become popular, and hence prevent the next smoking epidemic from harming the next generations,” it said.

The global e-cigarette and vape market size was valued at US$15.04 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 28.1 per cent from 2021 to 2028. In Hong Kong alone, it is now worth about HK$30 million, with products targeted at young people and promoted as “less harmful than regular tobacco”.

So why has LegCo not passed the bill when the government is in favour of it? One reason is the disruption to legislative business caused by the street protests. Another is the opposition of some lawmakers and the tobacco industry.

Liberal Party lawmaker Peter Shiu Ka-fai said that e-cigarettes should be banned but HTPs should only be regulated. These products help people give up smoking and cause less harm to users’ health and the environment, he said. A total ban could encourage black market sales, that would make law enforcement harder, he added.

The Coalition of Tobacco Affairs, which represents the industry, said the government should take a “pragmatic and science-based approach” to the products.

“Regulation instead of a total ban is in line with the right public health principles and takes into account the freedom of 700,000 adult smokers to choose less risky heat-not-burn products,” it said.

Citing a survey of 882 users of HTPs, the Heated Tobacco Concern Group said last week (September 3) that 90 per cent of respondents said that they would return to regular cigarettes if there was a ban.

In an editorial on September 6, the Ming Pao newspaper backed a total ban. “The scourge of cigarettes has to do with the public interest. While tobacco companies make a lot of money, the cost is shouldered by society. The government must actively intervene to end the situation. The draft amendment bill must not contain any loose ends that allow tobacco companies and vested interests to take advantage of loopholes.”

Dr Judith Mackay, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, said that all forms of tobacco use were harmful.

“These new products offer a new, trendy, exciting way of using tobacco and nicotine. Although the industry states that these products are to help smokers quit, appalling advertising is directed at children, not at middle aged smokers. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back. Please do not experiment with Hong Kong’s youth.

“Twice before, the industry has promised safer cigarettes – with low tar and filtered cigarettes – which turned out to be a fallacy. Now we hear the same argument being used for both E-cigarettes and HTPs. It is a tired and discredited industry argument,” she said, adding there is no safe way of using tobacco. “It is unthinkable that LegCo will not pass this bill to protect the young people of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s low smoking rate is the major reason why its people have the longest life expectancy in the world – 82.7 years for men and 88.1 years for women.

This was revealed in a study released last week conducted by seven universities of 263 million deaths in Hong Kong and 18 high-income countries as from 1960.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.