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Health Bureau defends proposed ban on e-cigarette sales

The local health authority said it did not agree with a survey suggesting that smokers would like to be able to choose to switch to less harmful alternatives to traditional tobacco products such as e-cigarettes

The city’s Health Bureau has defended its proposed ban on local sales of electronic cigarettes as part of the amendment of the tobacco control regime, saying that it does not agree with a survey suggesting that most smokers want to be able to choose to switch to ‘less harmful’ alternatives such as e-cigarettes.

In a statement released on Thursday night, the Bureau stated that e-cigarettes are not less harmful than traditional cigarettes, and that e-cigarettes should not be considered as an alternative to conventional tobacco products.

“To ensure public health, the MSAR Government has clearly suggested regulating e-cigarettes as a tobacco product as written in the delivered bill on the amendment of the tobacco control regime, and this has already gone through the first reading in the Legislative Assembly,” the Bureau stated.

The bill, which is now being reviewed by the second permanent committee of the Assembly, suggests a blanket ban on e-cigarette sales. The same bill also proposed a universal smoking ban in the city’s casinos.

The Health Bureau’s statement followed the Thursday briefing of two Hong Kong-based consumer advocacy groups calling for the government and legislature to give an opportunity to adults to choose e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking.

The two groups are Fact Asia and Asian Vape Association, and the former’s supporters include Axiom Select, the Tobacco Vapour Electronic Cigarette Association, and Philip Morris International.

In the briefing, Fact Asia has presented a survey conducted by Ipsos of 404 local adult smokers in late August to mid-September, in which 54 per cent agreed that e-cigarettes represent a positive alternative to smoking. Some 55 per cent of respondents agreed that the government should not prevent or delay legalising less harmful products.

The Health Bureau said they disagreed with the conclusion of the survey.

Citing a World Health Organisation (WHO) report of 2014 on electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), the Bureau stressed the possible health risks to ENDS users and non-users and that the efficacy of e-cigarettes helping smokers to quit smoking has not been systemically evaluated. Electronic cigarettes are the most common prototype of ENDS.

The WHO report, which recommends strict regulation of e-cigarettes and bans sales to minors, noted that the aerosol to ENDS users usually contains some carcinogenic compounds and other toxicants.

‘The fact that ENDS exhaled aerosol contains on average lower levels of toxicants than the emissions from combusted tobacco does not mean that these levels are acceptable to involuntarily exposed bystanders,’ the WHO report reads. ‘In fact, exhaled aerosol is likely to increase above background levels the risk of disease to bystanders, especially in the case of some ENDS that produce toxicant levels in the range of that produced by some cigarettes.’

Banning the trade

In Macau’s neighbouring city Hong Kong, the health authority is considering a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes despite a recent British Study suggesting their vapours are around 95 per cent less harmful than tobacco. Currently, e-cigarettes can be sold legally in Hong Kong, and they are regulated as pharmaceutical products by the Pharmacy and Poisons Ordinance.

The study, conducted by Public Health England, concluded that most of the chemicals causing smoking-related diseases were absent in e-cigarettes. The study also suggests e-cigarettes should be promoted as a means to help smokers quit.

Macau’s legislature will soon be considering whether it goes along with the government’s proposed ban on e-cigarette sales, as legislator Chan Chak Mo noted last week that he was still hopeful the bill could be approved before the legislative year ends in August, 2016.

“We recommend that the Legislative Assembly take note of regulations that have been introduced in other countries, and look at the body of evidence. They should introduce evidence-based regulation of e-cigarettes in Hong Kong instead of banning them without any in-depth understanding of the reasons why harm-reduction experts are calling for their legalisation,” co-founder of Heneage Mitchell commented in a note to the survey.

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