Over the past several years, we have seen the world wake up to the question of whether vapes and e-cigarettes are a better alternative to tobacco, which is well documented as harmful to our health. Authorities in the UK are preparing to ban the sale and manufacture of single-use vapes by next year, and the latest Netflix docu-series Big Vape: The Rise And Fall Of Juul also discusses the various issues.
We have witnessed a growing debate over the safety of vaping in Thailand, where it is illegal but nonetheless widely available. The question is whether vapes and e-cigarettes are as harmful as traditional tobacco products. People are also concerned about the reasons behind the ban, and whether or not smokers should switch to vaping for better health.
When it comes to comparing the health effects of e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes, it's essential to understand that both products come with risks. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, including at least 250 known to be harmful and more than 60 classified as carcinogens. These chemicals are responsible for the devastating health consequences associated with smoking, such as lung cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
E-cigarettes, on the other hand, do not produce tobacco smoke. Instead, they work by heating a liquid that usually contains nicotine, flavourings and other chemicals to produce an aerosol that users inhale. While e-cigarettes are not without their own set of risks, studies have suggested that they might be less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
The Royal College of Physicians in the UK, for instance, stated that "the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco".
The relative harm of vapes compared to cigarettes has sparked numerous debates within the scientific community. One thing is clear, vaping is not entirely without risk. The aerosol produced by e-cigarettes may contain harmful substances, and long-term effects are still being studied. However, it is plausible that vaping can be a less harmful alternative for smokers who are unable or unwilling to quit nicotine altogether.
Given the potential harm reduction associated with vaping, one may wonder why countries like Thailand maintain stringent bans on these products. The answer lies not only in the concerns about the health effects of vaping, but also in the broader context of regulating a burgeoning industry. While vaping is illegal, the availability of these products is widespread. The incongruity between the law and its enforcement raises questions about the effectiveness of a ban in curbing the use of vapes. It is evident that many Thais have embraced vaping despite its legal status, suggesting a significant demand for these products.
One could argue that the continued ban on vaping is counterproductive. While the government's intentions may be to protect public health, the reality is that many consumers are turning to an unregulated black market. In this scenario, it becomes difficult to monitor and ensure the quality and safety of vaping products. If the government were to regulate and tax vaping, it could potentially enhance public safety and generate revenue for public health initiatives.
The situation in Thailand is not unique. Many countries are grappling with the same challenges. In the United Kingdom, for example, ministers are preparing to ban single-use vapes by 2024, a decision that has sparked debate among health experts and the public. While the UK has been relatively more permissive in its approach to vaping compared to countries like Thailand, the new ban raises questions about the motivations behind such regulations.
Vaping bans often stem from a combination of concerns about health risks, potential gateway effects to smoking for youth and a desire to maintain control over the tobacco industry. Critics of vaping argue that it may renormalise smoking and that young people who start with e-cigarettes may transition to traditional cigarettes. Furthermore, the rapid proliferation of new and often flashy vaping products with countless flavours and designs to choose from has raised concerns about their appeal to adolescents.
In the grand scheme of things, the question is whether smokers should switch to vaping if they want to quit their cigarette habit for better health. It's essential to emphasise that quitting nicotine altogether remains the best choice for health. However, for those who are struggling to quit and have been unsuccessful with other methods, vaping might offer a less harmful alternative.
The vaping debate remains complex, with the scientific community divided on the relative health risks. Bans on vaping, as seen in Thailand and other countries, often result from a confluence of factors, including concerns about public health, youth initiation and the broader tobacco industry. While it's crucial to regulate vaping to protect consumers, an outright ban may not be the most effective approach. As more research emerges, policymakers should revisit their positions on vaping and consider harm reduction as a viable strategy for those unable to quit nicotine entirely.
Tatat Bunnag is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.