Illegal vape devices and accessories sold openly on messaging apps, social media platforms
The authorities carried out more than 170 operations targeted at illegal online sales on retail sites between 2018 and 2020.
SINGAPORE: While selling or owning electronic vaporisers, or vapes, is illegal in Singapore, this is not stopping people from openly offering these devices online.
A check this week by CNA showed at least 10 vape chat groups targeted at Singaporeans on messaging platform Telegram. The groups are open for viewing and joining to anyone, and they appear popular.
Most of the Telegram groups have a few thousand members, with several that CNA saw having in excess of 10,000.
READ: HSA seizes e-vaporisers and accessories worth more than S$369,000 in record haul
Within the Telegram groups, there is a steady stream of messages from suppliers about vape devices and related equipment which is available.
The one rule the groups seem to have is that selling to those below the age of 18 is not allowed, and some messages from suppliers on the groups include this warning.
Such sales channels are on the radar of the authorities.
The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) carries out active online surveillance and takes enforcement actions against those who buy or sell e-vaporiser products online, it said in response to CNA queries.
The authorities carried out more than 170 operations targeted at illegal online sales on retail sites between 2018 and 2020, HSA said.
It has also collaborated with online platforms like Instagram, Facebook and e-commerce sites to remove posts on the illegal sale of e-vaporiser products. More than 2,000 posts were removed in 2020, said HSA.
CNA looked into where vaping equipment is being illegally sold after news this week that HSA seized electronic vaporisers and related accessories worth S$369,150 - the agency's biggest haul so far.
HSA received a tip-off that there were several consignments containing e-vaporiser items waiting to be collected by consignees at a storage facility in Tuas, the authorities said in a press release on Tuesday (Mar 23).
More than 1,000 e-vaporisers and more than 25,000 related components called pods, were seized from the storage facility and a raid at a home. Three people are currently assisting HSA in the investigation, the authorities said in the statement.
There are also sellers on social media platforms like Instagram, some of which post photos of what they are selling on Instagram stories, which only stay online for 24 hours, making them harder to trace.
Some of the supplies appear to be coming from Johor Bahru. One Instagram page apparently belonging to a vape supplier in JB reads: "Hello Singapore people. We heard you. Good news for you guys. We open order again.”
READ: 7 in 10 youths unaware of cancer-causing chemicals in e-cigarettes: HPB
Based on information from ICA, many who bring vape pods, pens and accessories into Singapore across the border typically hide them in nondescript cardboard boxes and car compartments.
After inspecting anomalies in X-ray images, ICA has also found them in consignment cargo declared as other goods like beauty products, toys and clothes. They have even found refill pods hidden in LED lightbulbs and a container of cooked rice.
One member of a Telegram vape chat group who spoke to CNA anonymously said that she joined the group because someone recommended it to her who knew of her interest in vaping.
Despite being in the group, she is hesitant to enter the illegal world of vaping because of the fear of being caught and the health risks involved.
“The thought about the vape incidents causing hospitalisation does scare me ... which is why I still haven’t bought it,” she said. She added that she does not want to be fined for vaping.
HARD TO PROSECUTE OFFENDERS FROM OVERSEAS
It is an offence under the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act to sell, offer for sale, possess for sale, import or distribute e-vaporisers. The offence carries a penalty of up to S$10,000 in fines and a maximum six months' jail for the first offence.
The prohibition on the possession, use and purchase of e-vaporisers took effect on Feb 1, 2018. Any person who is convicted may be fined up to S$2,000.
HSA told CNA that in the first two months of this year, the agency caught six people for selling electronic vaporisers and 443 people for the possession and use of such products.
Criminal lawyer Adrian Wee from Characterist LLC told CNA that since it is an offence to import vape products, anyone who plays a role in the importation could potentially be prosecuted.
“It doesn’t matter who the person is or where the person is. The question is whether that person has played a role in the importation of the product,” he added.
“But practically speaking, if that person is overseas, then there are very limited avenues to apprehend or prosecute that person.”
This means that it would be difficult to prosecute sellers who are located overseas, unless there are similar penalties and mechanisms to prosecute these people in their home country, he added.
Operating on Telegram also helps suppliers to avoid being identified. CNA observed that some groups kept their list of members hidden, and many suppliers advertising on the groups used nicknames and profile pictures without a face.
Most suppliers would operate with untraceable phone numbers, and Telegram is encrypted and has a function to automatically delete messages, said Mr Wee. This means that the evidence against suppliers or buyers may not remain on phones for long enough before they get caught, he added.
HEALTH RISKS OF VAPING
Apart from being illegal, vaping also carries health risks. The biggest concern would be that of EVALI, which stands for e-cigarette or vaping products use-associated lung injury, said consultant respiratory physician from The Respiratory Practice at Farrer Park Hospital Dr Alvin Ng.
Symptoms of EVALI resemble those of pneumonia, like shortness of breath, cough and may result in severe lung injury requiring mechanical ventilation, he said.
“Unlike bacterial pneumonia, EVALI does not respond to antibiotics, and in severe cases, may lead to death,” said Dr Ng, who is also an intensivist, board-certified to take care of critically ill patients.
While he personally has not treated patients who vape, Dr Ng said that reports from overseas indicate that patients are from the younger age group, “largely from the increasing popularity of vaping among the younger generation who see vaping as being fashionable”.
“The younger generation is attracted to the flavouring used in the vaping products, the lack of smoke smell and the relatively cheaper cost of vaping products compared to conventional cigarettes,” he said.
However, he said vaping is not a better alternative to smoking as there is still nicotine in the vaping products and therefore these products remain addictive.
“Furthermore, the additives in the vaping products may contain unknown substances that have been implicated as possible causative agents for lung injury and death,” he said.
Chemical compounds in electronic vaporisers, also called electronic cigarettes, include cancer-causing substances such as nicotine, a highly addictive and toxic chemical found in insecticides. They also contain formaldehyde, which is used as embalming fluid, as well as benzene, which is found in car exhaust. Existing evidence shows that these chemicals pose multiple health risks to both users and non-users.