When rationalising his government's decision to maintain the ban on electronic cigarettes this week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha did not seem to get all the facts straight. And that explains why his government is insisting on keeping the ill-considered prohibition on e-cigarette use instead of regulating it.
While scientists still have a lot to learn about the impacts of vaping on human health, current information from research and trials suggests there are both harms and benefits associated with e-liquid use. But the premier on Tuesday only cited the former when he explained why the ban is still necessary. He even missed out the fact that e-liquid aerosol is less toxic than the smoke from conventional cigarettes.
E-cigarettes produce an aerosol by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavouring and other chemicals. Thailand imposed the ban in 2014. The US, the UK and other European countries do not prohibit e-cigarettes but impose strict regulations on sale and advertising.
Unlike e-liquids, Thailand does not criminalise conventional tobacco products. Instead, the state has implemented anti-smoking campaigns and imposed strict regulations on the sale and advertisement of cigarettes. The number of tobacco smokers, however, has only dropped 4% in the past 13 years, or by 0.3% per year.
As of 2017, there were 10.7 million smokers of regular cigarettes in Thailand, or 19.1% of the population. In 2014, about 54,000 Thais died from smoking-related diseases such as cancers, strokes and heart attacks. On average, they lived 17 years less than their non-smoking peers.
This does not mean the state should also ban regular cigarettes, because smoking them is a matter of personal choice. But the government, especially the Public Health Ministry, must not overlook the fact there are current smokers who want to use e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking. It is true there is insufficient evidence to confirm that e-cigarette use is an effective way to stop smoking. Many smokers who use e-cigarettes end up smoking both types of products. However, some research confirms that many others have succeeded in using e-liquids to quit smoking.
Importantly, according to some research, e-cigarettes might be less harmful to regular smokers who switch to them completely. That is because e-cigarette aerosol has fewer toxic chemicals than smoke from tobacco products. E-cigarettes also do not produce tar.
Of course, this does not mean that e-liquids are safe because they can still damage vapers' health as they expose the lungs to cancer-causing chemicals, including nicotine, and small particles. E-liquids can be popular among young people, as has been seen in the US. This is an area of concern because highly additive nicotine can impair adolescents' brain development.
Imposing a complete ban will only make e-cigarettes more appealing to young people and drive many to seek them from the underground market where sub-standard products can be easily found. The state should allow the sale and use of e-cigarettes and impose strict regulations on the manufacture, labelling, advertising and sale of them. At the same time, it should educate the public about the associated harms and benefits while discouraging non-smokers from using them.
It is not sensible to ban e-cigarettes while keeping more deadly conventional tobacco products legal and widely available. Smokers need the facts, but the message they have received from the government is incomplete.