Smoking out the truth about vaping

Source: NST Online

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Smoking out the truth about vaping 19 AUGUST 2015 @ 12:01 PM TTHE New Sunday Times’ front-page story “Scent of danger” (Aug 16) highlighted the complexity of the issues related to tobacco and drug abuse. The recent comments made by the health minister on e-cigarettes and vaping are, therefore, welcome, although overdue. The use of e-cigarettes among Malaysians, especially the younger generation, became widespread more than year ago when the novelty caught the attention of smokers. Believing that it was “safer”, people used the product, with the absence of restrictions and advice against their sale and use.

The minister is right in pointing out that e-cigarettes are not harmless, despite them allegedly being devoid of tar. This means that, just like conventional cigarettes, there are other toxic substances present, including cancer-inducing agents, in addition to the highly-addictive poison, nicotine. In a nutshell, let’s not be distracted by the use of jargon like vaping, so long as it is a way to cause long-term debilitating effects on people. We have yet to come out convincingly against the use of shisha, attempted many years ago, and now e-cigarettes are rearing their ugly heads.

Some are said to be laced with dangerous drugs. As it stands, the scent of danger will be the next scent of death, adding to the 20,000 Malaysians who die annually from smoking-related diseases. This is, thus, a life-threatening matter. On that note, the ambivalent stance of “yet-to-decide” while gathering input from other authorities or agencies for the next two months add to the disappointment. This is especially when statements regarding e-cigarette use as “haram” were made almost in the same breath. More so when several countries that are known to be progressive in matters of tobacco control and health of their citizens had banned the products long before this.

Such decisions could have been a credible template for Malaysia to avert the “yet-to-decide” excuse. Moreover, it boggles the mind as to what could be expected from the “yet-to-decide” attitude when there is no longer any major dispute about the dangers of using e-cigarettes, as the minister explained, and is supported by health professionals and civil societies, including the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations and Consumers Association of Penang.

In fact, the minister recognised that it is “globally accepted to be a harmful practice”. Add to this the number of deaths related to tobacco use, which continues to rise, the “yet-to-decide” cliché sounds irresponsible, since for every moment delayed, more lives will be lost, which is what the Health Ministry has sworn to minimise, if not prevent. In contrast, the delay tends to send an ambivalent signal to e-cigarette sellers, who are resisting government control. On the contrary, the ministry, armed with grim statistics, should have been at the forefront, taking the lead and asserting its authority in defence of the right to a healthy life for Malaysians.

This is in line with the oft-mentioned slogan “rakyat didahulukan.” What else should it be, when it comes to health matters, where even the ministry advocates “Utamakan Kesihatan”? Even worse, if it is “haram”, what is there to “wait” for? It is incumbent on the Muslim personnel in the ministry to clarify what the “haram” ruling actually entails, to the minister. In short, there is no room for any delay in decision-making if the people’s health is of the utmost concern, and certainly not for two months. Moreover, learning from experience, there seems to be a trend where positions taken by the Health Ministry on tobacco issues were softened, including resulting in delays, based on business and commercial considerations as articulated by vested groups, even at the expense of the wellbeing of the people. That is also why our policies and actions on tobacco control are lagging compared with Thailand and Singapore, for example. All these add to the anxiety of the predicament, signalling to the nation the slogan “Utamakan Kesihatan”, can be compromised as the shisha case demonstrates, in addition to the case in point illustrated below. If the shisha and e-cigarette issues are not confusing enough, add to this the issue of daun ketum, which is about to be legally classified as “dadah berbahaya” (dangerous drugs). While the classification is justifiable and welcome, it is problematic when compared with cigarettes, including e-cigarettes.

Far from being classified as “dangerous” (despite them being so), tobacco is regarded as a legally- tradeable commodity where the government collects millions of revenue on them. The stark fact is that tobacco is more addictive and deadly than ketum. From the comparative numbers of deaths and cases of addiction, there is ample evidence to bear this out. Moreover, while ketum trees grow mostly in the wild and are less accessible because of their height and location, tobacco is grown legally in specially-approved economic zones and protected from being harmed or destroyed. It is then harvested and turned into even more toxic products, like cigarettes, to be sold in the open market, some with special points of sale enhanced by sexy promotional counters. Yet, the minister has gone on record to dismiss the suggestions to farm ketum for economic purposes. As to what scientific basis and technical explanations that necessitate such stark “double standards” really needs explaining. On the contrary, what is obvious is that it makes a mockery of the decisions taken against ketum in favour of the more insidious killer tobacco products, especially cigarettes.

The time, therefore, has come for the ministry to account and rationalise this scientifically and convincingly, so that everyone is well-aware as to how the decisions are arrived at in ensuring the health of the people without compromising the ideals of “Utamakan Kesihatan.” One way or another, this will have implications on the confidence of the people as to how resolved is the ministry to deal with the even more complicated issues of e-cigarettes or e-“shisha” without having to resort to a “yet-to-decide” stance, bearing in mind that we have yet to see a clear impact on control of shisha use, which was mounted many moons ago. Let us not waste any more time as the scent of death is in the air. Dzulkifli A. Razak, Member of the Board of Trustees, National Cancer Council Malaysia (MAKNA)