Philippine police start arresting vapers following ban on e-cigarettes

The health department estimates that there are at least a million Filipinos who use e-cigarettes. Nearly 20 million are smokers. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - Philippine police began enforcing on Wednesday (Nov 20) a ban imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte on the use and importation of "toxic" e-cigarettes that have been linked to deaths and addiction.

Lieutenant-General Archie Gamboa, acting national police chief, told reporters he has ordered law enforcers to arrest those "vaping" in public.

The police will also "coordinate with local government units and agencies, vape stores and owners to enhance the enforcement of the ban", he said.

The wide-ranging smoking ban imposed in 2017 prohibits smoking in all "enclosed public spaces, whether stationary or in motion".

These include all government buildings, schools, offices, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, train and bus terminals, and shopping malls.

Smoking inside public utility vehicles were also outlawed.

Also covered were all "outdoor spaces where people gather", such as parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, waiting areas and resorts.

The health department estimates that there are at least a million Filipinos who use e-cigarettes. Nearly 20 million are smokers.

Mr Duterte late on Tuesday outlawed the use and importation of e-cigarettes, following the country's first reported case of a vaping-related lung injury.

"I will ban it. The use and importation. You know why? Because it is toxic, and government has the power to issue measures to protect public health and public interest," he told reporters.

Mr Duterte, 74, was himself once a heavy smoker, but quit when he was diagnosed with Buerger's disease, which can cause blockages in the blood vessels.

"This vaping, they say it is electronic. Don't give me that s***. Better stop it, I will order your arrest if you do it in a room... That is like smoking. You contaminate people," he said.

The ban could curb expansion plans of companies such as US e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, which has been launching its products in international markets, including the Philippines, amid a widening crackdown on vaping in the United States.

Public health officials in the US recommended not using e-cigarettes after several deaths and hundreds of cases of illnesses linked to e-cigarette use were reported.

The push to ban e-cigarettes in the Philippines gathered steam after doctors confirmed that a 16-year-old girl last month showed signs of a lung injury related to her heavy use of e-cigarettes for six months.

The health department has called for an outright ban on e-cigarettes, saying these devices have not proven to be effective at helping smokers quit.

Senator Christopher Go, who remains Mr Duterte's personal assistant, said earlier he had asked the president to issue an executive order to regulate the production, distribution, sale and use of e-cigarettes.

"Smoking, in all forms and manner, is a public health issue and it adversely affects almost everyone around a smoker, even those who do not smoke at all," he said.

But a group advocating for e-cigarettes as smoking-cessation devices on Wednesday asked Mr Duterte to reconsider his decision.

Dr Lorenzo Mata, head of the group Quit For Good, said e-cigarettes are "95 percent less harmful" than tobacco.

The ban, he said, "can have dire consequences in the health and economy of the nation".

"Without a viable alternative to smoking, now considered as 95 per cent less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, then we are depriving the 17 million Filipino smokers of this opportunity," he said.

The world's vaping industry, which has seen rapid growth, has faced a growing public backlash over concerns of increased use by young people.

Singapore banned e-vaporisers, which include e-cigarettes and e-cigars, last year.

China, which has already banned online sales of e-cigarettes, said last week that it planned to ban their use in public places.

India, which has the second-largest population of adult smokers in the world, banned the sale of e-cigarettes in September as it warned of a vaping "epidemic" among young people.

Malaysia also wants to curb e-cigarettes and vaporisers together with tobacco products under a single law that would prohibit promotions and advertising, usage in public areas and use by minors, its health ministry has said.

The global market for e-cigarettes was worth US$15.7 billion (S$21.4 billion) in 2018, data from Euromonitor International showed, and is projected to more than double to US$40 billion in 2023.

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