To ban or not to ban e-cigarettes?

March 27, 2024 | 03:21 pm PT
Le Quoc Vinh Businessman
When I first entered university, I did something that, upon recall, I always chuckled at how stupidly innocent it was:

I started smoking to show people how "mature" I was, and to show off with my female friends. I was very poor in university, much like all other university students back then. So naturally, I chose one of the cheapest brands, a no-filter straight-up cigarette. We only chose a more expensive type of cigarette on the first day of the new academic year. We did not have any strong reason to do so, besides the dire need to impress the new influx of girls at the school.

Nowadays, I was quite shocked upon hearing my friends telling me that their 14-year-old children bought vapes, or electronic cigarettes, for each other as birthday gifts, just because they think the gifts are "cooler" this way.

A research paper on cigarette usage among teenagers in the U.S. shows that the percentages of children in grades 8, 10, and 12 who use electronic cigarette products with nicotine increased by 9, 15, and 16% from 2017 to 2019, respectively. A medical research paper by the U.S.’s renowned Johns Hopkins Medical University also shows that among youngsters, electronic cigarettes, especially the single-used types, are more commonly used than any traditional cigarette products.

In Vietnam, research on school-age students’ health survey in 2019 shows that approximately 2.57% of students from 13 to 17 years old have started consuming electronic cigarettes. Similarly, a research paper published by Vietnam’s Institute of Health Strategy and Policies shows that the proportion of students using electronic cigarettes is considerably higher in major metropolitans, citing a whopping 8.35% figure in Hanoi.

Along with this trend of early electronic cigarette usage is the increased prevalence of lung diseases and the higher mortality rate from vaping. Vietnam’s Ministry of Health said that healthcare institutes in Vietnam have received some young people needing intensive care for overdosing on narcotics in electronic cigarettes, with signs including seizures, overstimulation, hallucinations, unconsciousness, comatose, brain damage, and various neurological conditions.

According to Dr. Michael Blaha, Director of Clinical Research, Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, John Hopkins University, there are three reasons why young people consume more electronic cigarettes. First, young people believe that electronic cigarettes are less harmful than traditional ones. Second, the costs of usage for electronic cigarettes are typically less than their traditional counterparts. Third, electronic cigarettes tend to have less disagreeable smells, which allows smokers to avoid social reprehension compared to using traditional cigarettes.

Since Hong Kong proposed a law regulating electronic and other new cigarette products in 2018, various stakeholders there, including the medical and education sectors, as well as parents have expressed strong concerns about the regulations of those products. Some outright think that these products should be outlawed. After considering all the pros and cons, Hong Kong lawmakers proposed a bill prohibiting the import, manufacture, sale, distribution, and advertisement of tobacco substitutes, including electronic cigarettes, heated tobacco, and herbal cigarettes, which led to a new law completely prohibiting all of those products effective from October 2021. Hong Kong Customs later launched an extensive campaign, which cracked down 46 cases with 360,000 products and an estimated value of over HKD10 million (US$1.3 million).

Nowadays, there have been about 40 countries prohibiting electronic cigarettes, with 18 banning heated cigarettes. Within the Southeast Asia region, there have been five countries completely prohibiting electronic cigarettes: Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Brunei, and Cambodia.

Many developing countries have now considered the use of electronic cigarettes to be a new "epidemic" and are spending significant financial resources to tackle the issue. While the global profits of the tobacco manufacturing and distribution industries are approximately $7 billion, the World Health Organization reported that smoking cigarettes caused a deficit of over $1 trillion annually to the global economy due to lower productivity and higher healthcare costs.

While society has long agreed on the detrimental effects of traditional cigarettes, the manufacturing, distribution, and usage of electronic cigarettes remain controversial topics in Vietnam. Recently, Vietnam’s Ministry of Finance proposed a 50% import tariff against electronic cigarettes and related products, a part of the drafted decree on preferential import and export tariffs. Similarly, Vietnam's Ministry of Health has repeatedly proposed a complete ban on the production, distribution, and consumption of electronic cigarettes, along with a ban on experimenting with new tobacco products. However, Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security considered that as there have been no specified import and export policies for electronic cigarettes, the imposition of tariffs might not be suitable.

The circulation of electronic cigarettes is, first and foremost, an economic matter, with questions including whether the products should be completely banned or just regulated, how high should the tariff be, and many more. This economic matter, unfortunately, is closely intertwined with a social dimension, if allowing electronic cigarettes in any form would indirectly promote a generation more and more addicted to nicotine and tobacco.

Like many other countries, Vietnam has not been successful in discouraging the young generations from using tobacco. Despite policies that ban young people from acquiring tobacco, these harmful products remain very easily accessible. With a cost as low as VND20,000 (80 cents) a pack, the equivalent of a breakfast, a child can buy cigarettes in any convenience store or beverage stall on the street, where regulations are typically overlooked. If electronic cigarettes get officially recognized and legally distributed in Vietnam in any means, the same prospect could become a common reality, where children can easily buy them anytime, anywhere.

If Vietnam decides to legalize electronic cigarettes, the country needs to build strong legal regulations and establish a monitoring and inspection system specifically for the products. This may create an additional responsibility for the government authorities and would take up considerable financial and human resources. These resources could admittedly be used for more pressing social needs.

Additionally, Vietnam needs to put strong efforts into testing and monitoring the product quality of electronic cigarettes and maintain transparency in inspection, monitoring, handling and fining violations in cigarette manufacturing and distribution. Objectively, Vietnam now only has the technical capability to inspect the tar and nicotine contents of cigarettes, while heated tobacco and electronic cigarettes also contain various other harmful substances.

Vietnam, as a developing country with weak financial and technical resources, is realistically unable to monitor both the traditional and the electronic cigarette markets.The larger the variety of tobacco products, the more options young people would have, and the harder it would be for society to monitor the products and handle the consequences.

*Le Quoc Vinh is a businessman working in advertising and communications.

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