SINGAPORE: The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has caught 28 people for using vaporisers in the four months since laws making such devices illegal kicked in in February this year.
Up until February, while the the importation and sale of e-cigarettes were illegal, using, owning and possessing vaporisers remained ungoverned by laws.
When asked how these users were caught, a spokesperson for HSA said that in the course of their enforcement duties, its officers will look out for any person who is using these vaporisers, which include e-cigarettes. The act is also called vaping.
E-cigarettes carry a nicotine-containing liquid called juice which is heated into a vapour and inhaled.
HSA gave the update in response to queries from Channel NewsAsia. From the beginning of January last year to the end of May this year, the authority dealt with 2,161 cases involving the importation of vaporisers and 120 cases involving the sale of such products. Importation includes buying these devices from Malaysia and trying to bring them into Singapore for personal use.
Vaporiser peddlers are detected through HSA’s surveillance efforts, feedback from the public, and intelligence shared among partner agencies, the spokesperson added.
“Vaporisers detected via post or checkpoints by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority will be referred to us for investigation,” she said.
All confiscated vaporisers are destroyed, she said. Former users that Channel NewsAsia spoke to said they previously ordered the devices from overseas, or brought them in from Malaysia.
PROGRESSIVELY TIGHTENED LAWS APPEAR TO HAVE SOME EFFECT
The laws appeared to have had an effect on some. Two former e-cigarette users Channel NewsAsia spoke to said that they stopped their habit partly because of the laws.
One, of them, a 28-year-old man who did not want to be named, said that he stopped partly because of the fine for bringing in juice from Malaysia, which increased from up to S$5,000 previously to up to S$10,000 for first-time offenders in 2016. He found it too big a sum to take the risk.
Another former user, a 32-year-old man, who used to order his supplies from a fellow vape user, said that he also stopped in 2016 once the laws started getting stricter.
“It was also due to the difficulty of getting the vape and solution,” he said. However, he said he has started smoking 30 per cent more, after stopping vaping and returning to cigarettes.
Psychotherapist Andrew Da Roza who deals with addictions said there are no reliable ways of measuring the current prevalence of e-cigarette use in Singapore and whether the introduction of the law preventing import and sale in 2015 reduced usage or whether the law this year preventing ownership and use had a bigger impact.
A simple search online shows that it is difficult for potential users to find information on vaping, a contrast from before. Previously, it was a breeze finding vaporisers and their components on sites like Carousell. Suppliers advertised the sale of such products, despite them being illegal.
Information on an e-cigarette forum was also more detailed previously. A visit to the site showed strict instructions on not discussing where to buy juice or vaporisers. A Question & Answer segment for new members warned that these items are illegal in Singapore.
“No one is going to tell any Tom, Dick or Harry that walks into this forum such information. Bear in mind that the authorities are watching. We are not being paranoid. They are watching,” it said.
NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF E-CIGARETTES
Nicotine contained in e-cigarettes is toxic to developing fetuses and can harm adolescent brain development, said Dr Chew Huck Chin, respiratory medicine specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.
He added that besides nicotine, which is “highly addictive”, e-cigarette aerosols can contain substances that harm the body. This includes cancer-causing chemicals and tiny particles that reach deep into lungs.
Public health authorities such as the World Health Organization and the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have expressed concern that e-cigarettes, like conventional cigarettes, harm users and non-users as they contain cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde and fine PM2.5 particulate matter, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said.
MOH shares the same concern, a spokesperson added.
“E-cigarettes and vaporisers can also lead to nicotine addiction and are a potential gateway to cigarette use," she said, pointing to "many authoritative scientific studies" in the US, United Kingdom and Canada on more than 20,000 youths, that have shown that those who use e-cigarettes were more likely to move on to conventional cigarettes.
She also pointed to a recent modelling study by Dartmouth College’s Norris Cotton Cancer Centre, which projected that in the US, e-cigarettes would cause an additional 168,000 teens and young adults to start smoking and become daily smokers.
MOH is committed to lowering smoking prevalence in Singapore through a “comprehensive, multipronged approach to discourage and reduce the use of tobacco products”, the spokesperson added.
Dr Chew noted said there is "strong evidence" that e-cigarettes may act as a gateway to traditional cigarettes among youth and young adults whose smoking rates have dropped over the years.
However, Mr Da Roza said: "There may be people who are vulnerable to smoking and using e-cigarettes, as well as using alcohol and adopting other destructive behaviours, but one does not cause the other," he said.
He added that the cause is the person’s vulnerability to these different behaviours. While many studies warn against vaping, others have said that e-cigarettes contain fewer toxins, and thus lead to lower risks of noncommunicable diseases.
Dr Chew acknowledged that that some data does support that e-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than the smoke from regular cigarettes.
However, one explanation for conflicting information is that the research is still evolving, he added.
“There is little that we know about e-cigarettes and just like the data that we now have about tobacco smoking which took many years to evolve, it may take time to be able to fully understand the effects of e-cigarettes,” he said.
Still, Dr Chew cautioned that e-cigarette aerosol is not harmless, as it may contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, including nicotine, and heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds, and cancer-causing agents, he said.
"We can’t yet be certain of all the long-term effects across all devices and liquids, so it’s best not to pick up the habit."