Jurisdictions around the globe are moving in favour of regulating e-cigarettes rather than a complete ban. A visiting market expert argues it’s never too late for the Hong Kong government to follow suit.
The Hong Kong government has been urged to reconsider its plan to ban e-cigarettes as they can be a much less harmful alternative to tobacco cigarettes in nicotine delivery – if regulated properly.
Dr Stephen Jenkins, director in regulatory and medical affairs of Nicoventures in the Asia-Pacific region, is in Hong Kong reaching out to lawmakers to garner support for e-cigarette regulation instead of a total ban. Earlier in June, legislator Kwok Wai-keung (郭偉強) of the Federation of Trade Unions revealed that the current administration will propose banning the imports and sale of e-cigarettes in the 2016/2017 LegCo term.
Dr Jenkins stresses that e-cigarette, without tar and the process of combustion, is 95% less harmful than traditional cigarettes and is the most frequently used device to quit smoking, citing much-quoted reports from Public Health England and Royal College of Physicians. He also notes that Canada and New Zealand have recently announced that they will move to regulate e-cigarette, and there is a review undergoing in Australia. The World Health Organisation has also taken a step back by taking out complete ban as a recommended policy option in its latest report on Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems and Electronic Non-Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS/ENNDS) for the seventh session of the COP (COP7). A more concrete stance from the influential health body is expected after COP7 which will be held in November.
“Our view is electronic cigarettes, as they are in Europe, should have dedicated regulation to ensure that they are available to smokers and not sold to under 18s, with quality standards in place to ensure that the devices and liquids are reliable,” Dr Jenkins puts. “The data and the experience globally is clearly in one direction: that they should be available and they should be regulated. […] I am very happy to have an open discussion with the [Hong Kong] government and be challenged on the evidence.”
Other countries in Asia that already have regulation in place, or are looking into introducing one include South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Nicoventures is a company set up in 2010 by British American Tobacco (BAT) which focuses on the development and commercialisation of non-tobacco nicotine products. The company has made written submissions to the LegCo’s Panel on Health Services back in June last year and to Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man (高永文) in early 2016. It has also requested a meeting between Dr Jenkins and government representatives but the invitation was turned down by the government. In response, the Food and Health Bureau stated that it has received submissions from various groups supporting its legislative proposal and the tobacco trade, and that it is in the process of studying the submissions.
Under the Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance (Chapter 138), nicotine is a Part I poison in Hong Kong and that e-cigarette containing nicotine is regarded as pharmaceutical product and must be registered with the Pharmacy and Poisons Board before sale or distribution. E-cigarette without nicotine is however unregulated under current laws.
“I hope that the government can present more justifications before presenting its proposal of a total ban in front of the LegCo,” Kwon Wai-keung earlier told Harbour Times. “In the meantime there should be amendments to the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance to keep e-cigarettes away from the minors.”
As Dr Jenkins adds, studies in the UK and Europe have already dismissed the ‘gateway theory’ as less than 1% of e-cigarette users, or vapers, being non-smokers. One study sampling 27,460 EU citizens shows 1.3% of never smokers used nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, with 0.09% reporting daily nicotine use. The report also notes over one-third of current e-cigarette users polled reported smoking cessation and reduction. He warns that a complete ban will only lead to the emergence of a black market flooded with low quality products.
“Even with a ban in place, e-cigarette devices will remain easily accessible to Hong Kong people as more than 90% of them are produced in Shenzhen,” Dr Jenkins argues. “So what we need to do is to ensure that those products coming into Hong Kong are reliable and traceable.”
“From a health policy perspective, [e-cigarette] is quite unique. The speed of change globally around this area is outstanding. People are making choices and looking for the government to help them. This bottom-up approach is encouraging countries to look at the data and opt for regulation,” Dr Jenkins asserts. “I never think it’s too late. The evidence is so strong that I’m sure as soon as people are aware of it, they will have to consider it.”