Taiwanese actress Charlene An's police extortion case is raising concerns over the legality of e-cigs and how smokers can still access them despite a ban in the kingdom.
It all started when An posted on social media early this month saying that she had been stopped and searched at a checkpoint while in a taxi with her friends during a night out in Bangkok. She said she was threatened with a criminal charge for having an e-cigarette device and later paid 27,000 baht before leaving the country on Jan 5.
Shortly after her post went viral, the Royal Thai Police began investigating the incident and concluded that it was extortion. Huai Khwang police at the Ratchadaphisek checkpoint, on the early morning of Jan 4, stopped the taxi for a search, the RTP said.
As a result, the public is now questioning whether e-cigarettes are truly illegal, with some experts providing the answer online.
Narong Kaewpetch, lawyer and president of the Social Justice Campaign Network, said on Facebook that the "possession of electronic cigarettes is illegal because the device is banned from import; the owner could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of four times the price plus unpaid tax, according to the Customs Act 2017".
The lawyer added that selling e-cigarettes and vaping in public spaces is illegal by order of the Consumer Protection Board of 2015 and under the Tobacco Products Control Act of 2017.
Despite the illegal status, e-cigarettes are explicitly promoted on social media platforms, especially Instagram and Line. Online vape retailers are using these platforms to attract customers, such as university students, businessmen and working people.
According to university student Sirinya (surname withheld), a regular vaper, the device is easy to find and purchase around her campus.
"Students often bring them from Malaysia or China to resell," she said. "They are a very common thing to see."
The 22-year-old added: "I also found a store near the campus that sells e-liquids and related devices."
When asked about health concerns, she said she has become more susceptible to tonsillitis since she started using e-cigarettes, but smoking relieves stress from studying.
Similarly, Chaya Zhu, 22, another university student who vapes, said devices are easy to get hold of.
Vaping devices and an e-liquid bottle. (Photo: www.123rf.com)
"I bought it from Instagram, but I see some on Line as well," said Mr Chaya, who says he has vaped for four years. "The shop is mostly known through word of mouth," he said.
"Most sellers deliver the vape themselves, especially around the university area where the service is standard practice."
When asked about health concerns, he said vaping is primarily a social choice and that he only smokes in secluded areas, not public settings.
"I believe it is still unclear whether it is illegal for the owner, so I don't want to risk vaping in public," he said.
According to 29-year-old Gif, a master of ceremonies, the device is widely sold on Line.
"Being illegal does not make it hard to find," she said. "It is very easy, even though [its illegal status] drives up prices."
Despite being sold on the internet, shops often conceal their location, she said.
As for health concerns, she said that she switched from cigarettes to vaping because "it is healthier and does not smell".
Jenny, a 21-year-old university student, said she vapes on occasion to relax.
"The device is pervasive and can be brought anywhere, whether from a friend or acquaintance, market, and especially on social media, with the exception of the shopping apps," she said, adding it is widely known that owning a vaporiser is illegal primarily due to tax concerns.
She said she is a light vaper and is unconcerned by the consequences of vaping.
Just say 'no'
Meanwhile, Dr Prakit Vathesatogkit, executive secretary of the Action on Smoking and Health Foundation, said that legalising e-cigarettes is very dangerous for young people and it will encourage teens to start smoking.
A study in the United States found that teenagers who vape are two to four times more likely to switch to smoking cigarettes than those who don't, he said.
Dr Prakit said over 30 countries and territories worldwide, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, have banned e-cigarette sales to protect children.
If Thailand wants to legalise e-cigarettes, it needs to make sure it can effectively prevent usage among adolescents, he said.
However, the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease suggests that banning the product is the best practice for developing countries that cannot effectively follow the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which aims to curb smoking around the world, he said.
"We are on the right track by banning e-cigarettes," Dr Prakit said. "But the problem is we are in trouble on the law enforcement [aspect]. Law enforcement is key to preventing the illegal e-cigarette trade.
"Legalising e-cigarettes will put a burden on tobacco control authorities and costs because we don't have a lab to examine the quality of e-cigarettes in the country," he said.
Regarding the health impact of e-cigarettes, Dr Prakit said that the WHO stated it could not reach a conclusion on whether they are more dangerous than regular cigarettes.
E-cigarettes started becoming popular ten years ago, he said, adding lab tests have shown the detrimental effects of e-cigarettes on the lungs of mice.
Dr Prakit noted the notion that e-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco is false.
According to a National Statistics Office 2021 survey, there were 9.9 million smokers in Thailand, 80,000 of whom smoked e-cigarettes.