Legalising nicotine-based e-liquid is not a solution but a problem

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) urges the government not to be taken in by the tobacco industry’s recent persuasion that the government can collect up to RM250 million in excise tax on nicotine-based e-liquids. The e-liquids are meant for use in Electronic Nicotine Delivery System (ENDS) devices such as vape and e-cigarettes.

Here we would pose a hypothetical question for the government: Would the government legitimise the sale of heroin, morphine, or amphetamine-type stimulants because billions of ringgit of these drugs have been smuggled into the country annually and that the government could have instead gainfully taxed from their sale?

Any form of chemical addiction is detrimental to the national’s interest and the rehabilitation cost and the treatment of non-communicable diseases (NCD) related to the habit is a fiscal burden to the government. Nicotine is as addictive as heroin, and cocaine. Thus, the industry thrived on addicting the users of its products and they may suffer from withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to wean off their habit.

ENDs must be banned – not regulated – because it is impossible to monitor the hundreds of both legal and illegal e-liquid brands in the market. In 2019 alone, there were about 7,000 e-liquid flavours available in the market. It would be impractical to verify the composition of those e-liquids as testing the samples is very laborious and expensive. By letting the industry to self-regulate is like allowing a fox to guard your chicken coop.

With countries implementing the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to curb smoking, the industry has to innovate to circumvent the tightening regulations by turning to e-liquids used by ENDS. Malaysia ratified the WHO FCTC in 2005 and it is the industry’s ploy to switch to spreading nicotine addiction through ENDS.

This strategy is confirmed by a recent news report declaring that Philip Morris (PM) will stop selling traditional cigarettes in the United Kingdom (UK) within the next 10 years. Selling nicotine addiction is its strength and its business niche; therefore, it has to change its product type from the conventional to survive.

The tobacco industry is switching to producing and marketing ENDS and Heated Tobacco Products (HTP), claiming that the so-called ‘traditional’ cigarettes are old fashioned and unsafe as compared to ENDS which are cool, modern and less harmful. HTPs are devices that electronically heat a thin roll of tobacco to release chemicals contained within the tobacco instead of using e-liquid.

PM’s Chief executive Jacek Olczak remarked that “those who want to continue smoking will be encouraged to switch to modern alternatives such as e-cigarettes or heated tobacco devices which are considered less harmful”. Studies have shown that ENDs do produce toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, lead, nickel, and acetaldehyde in their aerosolised vapour. These chemicals are known to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm. Heavy metals such as cadmium and nickel are also present.

The industry has a history of deceptions as can be seen by reading Tobacco Explained at the WHO website

If the government allows the sale of nicotine-based e-liquid, it is going to wipe of 50 years of tobacco control efforts of their predecessors. Tobacco control started in 1971 when a smoking prevalence study on public health doctors was carried out. The following year, Sheikh Abdullah Pay Revision Report abolished free cigarettes to military personnel on operations, and the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) was established.

By allowing the sale of nicotine-based vaping liquid, the government is opening the floodgates which it will never be able to close in decades to come. The move will not only involve British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI), and Philip Morris (PM) but some 5,000 vape operators in the country competing for customers.

The purported RM250 million excise tax stated by JTI would come from Malaysians who would direct their expenses to feed their addiction instead of expenditure on food and other essential needs of the family.

Selling cigarettes to persons under the age of 18 has been illegal since 1994 but the industry’s hidden agenda is to entice the youth. It is because, once a person is addicted to nicotine, the person will find it very difficult to quit. The industry knew about it since the 1960s but denied it for the next three decades. In 1963, Addison Yeaman who was the General Counsel for Brown and Williamson said, “Nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug.”

The industry is turning to ENDS because its compact size and design appeals to youths who find it easier to smuggle into school as compared to bulkier cigarette packs. Hence vaping is increasingly prevalent among students and it was reported that even primary school pupils were beginning to use ENDS openly.

Although there is no specific law for e-liquids in Malaysia, there is a ban on nicotine-based e-liquids since 2015. Despite the ban, RM1.4 million worth of e-liquids suspected of containing nicotine was confiscated in August 2019 after complaints about students smoking them.

In August 2019, JTI Malaysia stated that the illegal vape market in Malaysia is worth about RM2 billion and it has doubled over a period of one-year. We call upon the government to ban the sale of all e-liquids regardless if it is nicotine or non-nicotine based.


Press Statement, 30 July 2021