The Hong Kong government says no to bringing in, making, selling, distributing or promoting e-cigarettes and other new smoking products such as heat-not-burn tobacco in the city but smokers will still be allowed to use these products. However, even personal use devices will be seized at the border, effectively banning any use, putting thousands of small business people out of business and potentially creating a new black market.
The Special Administrative Region is joining 30 other jurisdictions worldwide –including Macau and Singapore – in banning the sale of e-cigarettes. On Wednesday, the government said any breaches could face a maximum penalty of HK$50,000 and six months’ imprisonment.
A bill to amend the Smoking Ordinance targeting these smoking alternatives was proposed by the Food and Health Bureau and will have its first hearing next Wednesday, Feb. 20.
It will be still legal to use these products but anyone using these products in a non-smoking area could face a fixed penalty of HK$1,500 or a court-imposed fine of HK$5,000.
“It is difficult to enforce the law if we ban vaping. And we don’t want to trouble the public too much,” said Ms Amy Yuen, Deputy Secretary for Food and Health.
Tourists carrying these products when arriving in Hong Kong will also be regulated. They will need to surrender these products voluntarily in boxes upon arrival.
Ms Yuen stressed that there will be a grace period of three months when the new regulation takes effect.
“In case a visitor doesn’t throw them away and is later found carrying an e-cigarette during the immigration check, we will tend to handle this with leniency during the early stage if the visitor cooperates and hands over the product to our officers,” she said.
But in theory, these products cannot be brought into the city even for “self-use”, as smokers claim. Ms Yuen explained that it could breed a black market if they are handed to other people.
Ms Yuen explained the move aims to stop young people from picking up the habit and to “nip the problem in the bud”.
“We worry that young people, who may not be users of conventional tobacco at the moment, will be attracted by the cool-looking alternative products and become smokers through vaping,” she explained.
“We have a responsibility…to protect public health and to prevent these products from taking root in Hong Kong, prevent them from being too popular such that in later days we cannot do too much about them,” she added.
According to government statistics, the number of vapers grew to 5,700 in 2017 from fewer than 1,000 in 2015.
The government’s move is in line with the sentiment from the medical and education sectors, which have long voiced strong opposition, worrying that legalizing these products might encourage the youth to pick up smoking.
The government also argued that youth are not interested in conventional cigarettes, which are legal in Hong Kong. It also said only after conventional cigarettes took root in the city has the public been aware of their damages to health, so it should curb the spread of e-cigarettes when it is still early.
A move too swift
But the regulation comes too swiftly and is hurting businesses, says Mr Max Chan Man-fai, chairman of the Hong Kong Vape Association.
“We think the government has made a hasty decision. It has not conducted a proper public consultation,” he says.
The new regulation will take effect six months after the bill is published. Sellers of e-cigarettes and other new smoking products worry they do not have enough time to get rid of existing stock, which valued up to HK$1 million for each seller. Mr Chan says it will deal a death blow to thousands of vendors.
Mr Shiu Ka-fai, wholesale and retail legislator, also says it is an unfair move when no consultation was conducted and it will hurt Hong Kong’s free market.
“The government bans a specific type of product to be sold in Hong Kong via legislation. I believe it is serious damage to Hong Kong’s free market,” he says.
The authorities seem not prepared to address the issue of mailing these smoking alternatives from overseas to Hong Kong, either.
“If there is a loophole in the regulation, we will think about how to plug it,” says Ms Sophia Chan, Secretary for Food and Health. Without giving a clear response, she says that the development of the Internet has brought challenges to law enforcement.