JOHOR BARU • In a rare intervention by one of Malaysia's nine rulers in state affairs, the Sultan of Johor has ordered all shops selling electronic cigarettes to close by Jan 1, saying he is imposing a ban on vaping based on health reasons and to stop young people from getting addicted to nicotine.
He ordered the Johor state Cabinet members - called executive councillors - to meet this week to ensure the ban is carried through.
The media last week reported that a survey by the Consumers Association of Penang, of eight primary and secondary schools in Penang, found 150 students who vaped regularly.
In Singapore, the sale, import or distribution of e-cigarettes are all banned.
Any move to curb e-cigarette use in Malaysia is politically sensitive as most of the vape shops are owned by Malays and their clients are also mostly Malays, some of whom have threatened not to vote for the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition if stopped.
But Sultan Ibrahim Ismail told The Star newspaper in an interview: "I want the outlets to close down by Jan 1, 2016, and I do not want to hear any excuses."
He added: "This is a question of health and its effects on young people. It has nothing to do with businesses and, for sure, it has nothing to do with race.
"I am greatly disappointed that some people are bringing up racial threats and political threats."
The rulers of the Malay royal houses are titular heads of their states and rarely intervene openly in how these are governed. They are allowed to intervene only in matters concerning Islam, land and water. In other issues, the rulers at times intervene in private through their menteris besar.
But the use of vape machines is spreading fast in Malaysia, with an open tussle at the federal government level on whether there should be curbs.
The Health Ministry is trying to ban or at least severely curb e-cigarette use over concerns about the nicotine in the liquids used in the e-cigarettes, but Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri has said several times that vape shops should be allowed to expand.
Datuk Seri Ismail said on Nov 8: "I want to see vape products from Malaysia being recognised worldwide, and what is more pleasing is seeing results from the creativity of young Malays and bumiputra."
Several Malay groups have lodged a police report warning that the crackdown on vaping could cost BN more than a million votes in the next general election.
The Johor Sultan said in the interview that politicians should stop pandering to the vape industry.
"Why are these politicians giving in to these threats? I want to know if these businessmen would allow their children to vape if it is so safe and healthy as they claim. Do you want to see your children puffing away?
"It is a new business. What kind of businesses were they doing before this? Go back to your previous work," he said.
Sultan Ismail pointed out that there would be long-term health effects from vaping. "It is also very clear, under the laws, that these vape outlets cannot sell nicotine, so why are we expected to close an eye to such disregard of the law? If it is not allowed, then it is not allowed. It is that simple."
The 2,000-strong Malaysian E-Vaporizers and Tobacco Alternative Association said it hoped to meet the Sultan to explain its views.
"We plead that the relevant authorities hear us out before imposing any form of a blanket ban," it said on its website.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK