Thailand asked to follow the PH lead in accepting safer tobacco alternatives
MANILA, Philippines — A consumer advocate asked the government of Thailand to follow the lead of the Philippines in passing legislation that encourages millions of smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives to prevent deaths and diseases.
Asa Saligupta, director of ENDS Cigarette Smoke Thailand (ECST), said Thailand’s ban on smoking alternatives only pushed these products underground, resulting in an unregulated market that deprives the government of revenues and forces consumers to keep on smoking.
“If you ban it, be careful of the black market, and make sure you have enough resources to deal with all the repercussions that the ban brings,” Saligupta said in a recent discussion on vapes.
Saligupta said smoking remains the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the world, killing more than 8 million people each year, while there is no evidence that vaping resulted in the death of a consumer in Thailand or the Philippines yet.
Saligupta said Thailand should study the case of the Philippines, which passed a vape law that acknowledges the role of tobacco harm reduction (THR) in the campaign against smoking. THR involves the use of less harmful alternatives, mainly electronic delivery products such as vapes, to mitigate the impact of combustible tobacco on health.
He said that within Southeast Asia, Thailand has the most restrictive law against vaping that pushed the market underground, while the Philippines is now giving consumers a chance to choose less harmful alternatives so that they can move away from smoking.
The Philippines is the first country in Southeast Asia to pass a vape law that regulates the sale and use of electronic cigarettes, heated tobacco and other smoke-free products to adult consumers, which studies in the UK found to be at least 95 percent less harmful than combustible cigarettes.
Republic Act 11900, or the Vaporized Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Products Regulation Act, became law in 2022. The Vape Law regulates the importation, sale, packaging, distribution, use, and communication of vaporized nicotine and non-nicotine products and novel tobacco products such as electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products.
Saligupta said that in contrast, it is illegal to import, distribute, and manufacture vapes in Thailand, while deadly smoking is allowed. He noted that Thailand imposed a ban on vapes and other smoke-free alternatives in 2014, resulting in the arrest of local vapers and foreign tourists who just wanted to consume less harmful products. Saligupta said this discouraged smokers from switching to innovative products.
“When the ban started, all the vape-related products went underground,” he said.
Saligupta, who quit 37 years of smoking with the help of e-cigarettes, said the ban on vapes kept smoking prevalence in Thailand high at 13 million smokers because they were not given other alternatives.
He said ECST has hundreds of thousands of members actively campaigning to lift Thailand’s ban on the use of e-cigarettes. “But what about the people who are anti-vaping? Would they outnumber the people who are more open to vaping? I don’t think so,” he said.
He said Dr. Prakit Vathesatogit of Action on Smoking and Health Foundation Thailand (ASH Thailand), who used to work for the World Health Organization (WHO), instigated a discussion in the Parliament on lifting the vaping ban and instead regulating electronic cigarettes.
Saligupta said the vaping ban in Thailand also became an international issue when a foreign tourist from France was arrested by the police for having a vaping device and was asked to give money in exchange of her passport.
An extortion case involving a Taiwanese celebrity caught in possession of a vaping device also resulted in the imprisonment of four police officers.
A study by a university professor estimated that the vaping ban in 2014 involved about six billion baht worth of electronic cigarettes and other alternatives each year, which doubled in the succeeding years.
“And that’s the annual underground economy that was going around,” he said. “So we’re looking at about 30 billion, 40 billion baht per year,” he said.
Saligupta noted that Thailand has one of the world’s most severe punishment and toughest tobacco control laws.
“We are like the poster child of the WHO. Those doctors were so proud of how Thailand was going to ban all vapes, and were expecting other countries to do the same,” he said.
Saligupta said, however, that the vaping ban only perpetuated the high prevalence of smoking in the country, as smokers were forced to keep on smoking and were penalized for seeking safer alternatives.