SINGAPORE - Electronic smoking devices including e-cigarettes are banned in Singapore, but sellers have found a way around the law by hawking them in cyberspace.
Young people, including teens below 18, are finding it easier to find such battery-run devices, which heat up a chemical, called an e-liquid, and turn it into vapour.
Also called "vaping" devices - as vapours are inhaled - these vaporisers and e-liquids can be obtained from online marketplaces like Carousell, Gumtree and Qoo10, as well as social media like Instagram and online forums here.
On Carousell, there are more than 30 such posts daily, with most selling e-liquids under vague search terms like "juice". E-liquid refills, sold for about $13 for a 10ml bottle and $25 for a 30ml bottle, come in flavours including bandung, root beer float and caramel macchiato, and may be laced with nicotine.
Vaping starter sets are also sold on Carousell for about $170 each.
After a deal is made, the listing would be deleted immediately.
Sellers on Carousell said they rely on the platform for fast deals, and it does not require users to reveal their identity. Their customers range from those in their mid-teens to people in their 50s.
One seller who did not give his name started selling vaporisers a year ago, but moved on to e-liquids "to help regulars continue their vaping lifestyle".
He has been "vape smoking" for the past three years and said the activity is growing in popularity here.
According to the Health Sciences Authority (HSA), there were more than 15,000 cases involving people bringing vaporisers, which include electronic cigarettes, cigars and pipes, into Singapore illegally between 2012 and September this year. In the same period, 39 peddlers were caught for selling vaporisers here.
HSA said the vaporisers were found in parcels mostly ordered online, and on people entering Singapore. The Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act here prohibits the import, distribution, sale or offer for sale of any item designed to resemble a tobacco product, including vaporisers.
Buying e-cigarettes from overseas websites or bringing them into the country in hand luggage is also considered importing.
Offenders may be fined up to $5,000 for the first offence, and up to $10,000 subsequently.
Veteran lawyer Amolat Singh said the owners and operators of the online sites can be charged with "aiding and abetting" the offences under the Tobacco Act.
"In a sense, it is no different from allowing someone to sell something illegal in one corner of one's shop," he said.
The online marketplaces said they are monitoring the situation.
Gumtree told The Straits Times that sellers who put up prohibited items for sale will be warned.
Those who continue to flout the rules will be banned and blocked.
"Sellers often try to find ways to work around our defences. We... will continue to update our filters to better clean our site," said a Gumtree spokesman.
Vaporisers can contain cancer-causing agents
Carousell said it works very closely with regulatory and enforcement agencies to identify prohibited products.
It also encourages users to flag products and sellers who do not abide by its guidelines.
There is a sizeable group of vaporiser users here, going by an online e-cigarette forum for people in Singapore, which has more than 200,000 registered members.
Users say the lack of a foul smell is a draw.
"My fingers no longer stink and I can confidently hold my loved ones," said a 28-year-old man.
Said the seller on Carousell of his customers: "Vaping helps smokers transit away from smoking traditional cigarettes, and all of my regulars have no intentions of reverting to smoking."
But Dr Wong Seng Weng, medical director of The Cancer Centre, said e-cigarette users are exposed to nicotine, which is addictive, as well as heated and aerosolised propylene glycol and glycerol, which may turn into carcinogens.
In a joint statement, HSA and the Health Promotion Board advise the public "against using vaporisers to quit smoking or reduce their nicotine addiction".
They cited a report by the World Health Organisation last year that said vaporisers can contain cancer-causing agents and toxicants and, in some cases, as much as those in conventional cigarettes.
They advised quitters to join the iQuit club at www.iquitclub.sg