No smoke, but much ire

No smoke, but much ire

Digital Economy and Society (DES) Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn is feeling the heat from his latest brainchild to legalise e-cigarettes. Mr Chaiwut upset health activists and anti-smoking campaigners after it was reported he was considering legalising their sale in the hope that the "vapers" can help smokers quit real cigarettes.

The minister also reportedly said Thailand could produce e-cigarette products and export them, and that both the Tobacco Authority of Thailand and tobacco growers would benefit.

His belief that the benefit of vaping lessens health impacts needs to be discussed and substantiated by reliable and quality data. Yet the DES minister's rationality reflects an old anonymous quote which says "If you can't beat them, join them."

Legalised in 67 countries, vaping has been banned in Thailand since 2014. Sellers and makers are subject to hefty penalties -- between 5-10 years in jail and fines ranging from 500,000 baht to 1 million baht. Vapers can be fined up to 5,000 baht.

The issue of e-cigarettes is more than just a topic of public health; it has raised the matter of personal choice and highlighted the double standards between rules for regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

Amid this debate, police have been criticised for going over the top in arresting e-cigarette sellers and even consumers. In reality, e-cigarettes exist. People are vaping. Type the word "e-cigarette" in an internet search, and long lists of sellers will pop up.

The big question is why the authority permits real cigarettes to be sold, not to mention that the Tobacco Authority of Thailand (TAT) is a state-owned body. And they're treating e-cigarettes as illegal contraband?

It's about time the authority re-examine its public policy on smoking. The government should open debate on legalising e-cigarettes. The discussion must look at various dimensions such as health impacts, freedom of choice, the issue of the black market, and whether the crime of vaping warrants such hefty penalties.

The issue of e-cigarettes again underlines the self-contradictory public policy on cigarette smoking. Our country's public policy has been driven by two goals that contradict each another. In one hand it is a financial interest and on the other, a health issue. Thailand's policy has tried to pursue both and ended up failing on both issues.

Policy-makers agree that cigarettes are a major threat to people's health and they are right. A survey in 2017 showed 72,656 people in Thailand died from illnesses caused by smoking that year. Meanwhile, the Public Health Ministry spends 77 billion baht annually to treat smoking-induced disease and illness.

The health advocate camp has campaigned for the government to hike the cigarette tax to a level that buyers -- especially those on low incomes -- can no longer afford cigarettes. Many countries -- the US and EU countries -- have imposed hefty tax rates on cigarettes to deter consumption, especially for young and low-income consumers. On the other hand, the Thai government has made money making and selling tobacco and cigarettes. The Excise Department looks at cigarette and tobacco as source of tax revenue.

The government needs to wake up and treat consumers and all players in this industry with maturity and lucidity. It is incontestable that cigarettes and e-cigarettes are bad for people's health. But a mature government must let people decide. All policy-makers must do is create fair and effective mechanisms to direct consumers' behaviour. The existing policy and tax measures do not.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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