E-CIGARETTES should be strictly regulated as a pharmaceutical product in Malaysia.
That’s the recommendation of the Health Ministry’s technical committee tasked with studying the health effects of e-cigs and shisha smoking, reveals its chairman, senior consultant chest physician Prof Datuk Dr Abdul Razak Muttalif, a former director of the Kuala Lumpur Hospital Institute of Respiratory Medicine.
The initial recommendation was to ban e-cigs all together, he shares in a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur. But because there were “a lot of issues”, which he declines to elaborate on, the committee decided on the next best thing: strict regulation.
Last year, Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the Health Ministry’s ban on sales of vapes containing nicotine would kill the Malay-dominated industry. The minister made the comment after several bumiputra groups lodged a police report over the issue.
Dismissing the concerns of pro-vaping groups that legislating e-cigs as a pharmaceutical product will push up costs and make them inaccessible to smokers who want to quit, Dr Abdul Razak says that it’s the same as buying medicine.
“Is it difficult to buy medicine in Malaysia? There are many pharmacies nationwide,” he says.
“We recommended regulating it as a pharmaceutical product rather than a consumer product because we cannot have people selling e-cigs over the counter like cosmetics.
“Once you categorise them as consumer products, you lose control of them,” he says, adding that the Malaysian model will be similar to the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive but will also take into consideration what is happening globally.
The minimum age restriction for the sale of e-cigs, however, is still being debated. While he thinks having a global regulatory standard is ideal, it is not realistic as different countries have different local issues to contend with: “I’ll be very happy if it’s 21 but we are also looking at 18.”
He questions the reliability of Greek cardiologist Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos’ claim that a large number of Malaysians have quit smoking because of vaping. The researcher, who will release his findings on the country’s vapers later this week, told Sunday Star last month that the new survey shows a high cessation rate of smoking regular cigarettes among vapers here.
“Was the study done in a proper, ethical manner? Let me see it first. We know that e-cigs will lead to nicotine addiction.
“We don’t want e-cigs to be a gateway to something bad. The aim is to ‘de-normalise’ smoking by 2045. Asking someone to go for e-cigs is to normalise the whole thing again. To me, zero vaping is as much a goal as zero smoking.”
The Health Ministry will regulate vaping liquids containing nicotine while the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry will be responsible for liquids without nicotine, says Dr Abdul Razak.
The e-cig devices, he says, must comply with Malaysian Standard, a technical document that specifies the minimum requirements of quality and safety for voluntary use by the public. The committee is also seeking to review the Poisons Act 1952 to include e-cigs.
“We gave our recommendations to the relevant authorities involved in the regulatory framework two months ago. Now it’s for them to draft the law.”
Denying that the committee, which was set up in 2013, took too long in coming up with its report, Dr Abdul Razak explains that vaping and e-cigs are new and there aren’t many facts about the practice.
“We didn’t want any unnecessary lawsuits. It’s not easy coming up with a law. Many parties are involved. Cabinet must approve it. It’s a very long process.”
In May, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam announced that laws to regulate the vaping industry will be ready before the end of the year. The laws will involve all aspects of vaping and its products and accessories as well as distribution.
Universiti Malaya associate professor, consultant psychiatrist, and nicotine addiction specialist Dr Amer Siddiq Amer Nordin is hopeful that whatever the Government decides will be in the best interest of Malaysians from a health perspective.
Our policies, he says, must protect all Malaysians from harm and should be in congruence with the National Strategic Plan 2015-2020. The Plan, he explains, aspires for a smoke-free nation by 2045. Our tobacco control policies, he insists, should be to reach that target – the sooner the better.
“We need legislation to tackle new nicotine products – like e-cigs – that will eventually make their way to Malaysia,” insists Dr Amer Siddiq, who is also the chief coordinator at the university’s Centre of Addiction Sciences.
The United States and the European Union seem to have taken a harder stand in regulating these products for their markets, he notes. Both, he feels, adopted a similar approach that they believe is in the best interest of their citizens.
“Although we’re aware of the decisions made by other countries globally, we must take their recommendations with a pinch of salt. What may work in the US and EU may not work for us due to various factors like the costs involved and their laws. So we take note of their regulations, review our situation, and take what’s suitable for us.”
He expects the Health Ministry to take a hard stand like the US and EU. All efforts, he feels, should be to reduce smoking prevalence by reinforcing existing laws.