Harsh words for HK regulators on e-cigs

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Hong Kong regulators are again panned for refusing to engage in any sort of discussion on e-cigarettes as the global vaping community meets in Warsaw for the third year.

An Asian smokers’ rights advocacy group has condemned Undersecretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee (陳肇始) for putting smokers’ long-term welfare at risk by turning a deaf ear to e-cigarette advocates and users, who oppose the Hong Kong government’s intention to push for a local ban on the devices.

“Half of some 650,000 smokers are condemned to death by Sophia Chan for [her] refusing to talk to any of us and she should get out of the office for not doing her job,” said factasia cofounder John Boley on the sidelines of the third annual Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN), held in Warsaw on 17-18 June.

Heneage Mitchell, Boley’s partner in factasia, had no good words about Chan and the Hong Kong government’s attitude either.

“Chan was tasked by the government to look into the whole issue and bring in different views, but what she did was to shut the door … and warned media representatives not to come to our briefing event in last December,” he recalled. “Vaping is a very large part of the nicotine alternative. Consumers have chosen it, so why on earth should you stand on the way?”

Mr Boley presenting findings in the Asia-Pacific region at the conference.

According to a survey conducted by factasia in the region December 2015, about 26% of smokers in Hong Kong were already using e-cigarettes regularly or occasionally, with 66% stating that they would switch to e-cigarettes if they were “legal”, “met quality and safety standards”, and were “conveniently available”.


Repeat study proposed

The group’s statements are emblematic of the concerns of many local e-cigarette activists, who believe that Chan’s bureau, as well as the statutory Council on Smoking and Health (COSH), are cherry-picking evidence to support their case.

In February 2016, Baptist University announced the results of a COSH-commissioned study on e-cigarettes. That study found high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) in the devices – one is a petroleum byproduct and the other is a flame retardant. At the time, Baptist University Assistant Professor of Biology Dr Chung Shan-shan (鍾姍姍) was widely quoted (or misquoted) as saying that the level of PaHs was “at least 1 million times more than roadside air in Hong Kong”.

In response, European doctor and scientist Professor Riccardo Polosa has a repeat of Dr Chung’s study. He said that a laboratory experiment would be conducted simultaneously in Hong Kong and Italy by the end of the summer. “We hope that by conducting a repeat study we can clarify some of the findings on e-cigarettes, which may not be accurate, and Dr Chung’s response was very positive,” Polosa stated.

Chung was invited by factasia to attend the conference, but she turned it down citing personal reasons.


A packed conference

About 350 participants from 55 countries joined the Warsaw conference to discuss the latest scientific and regulatory developments in the e-cigarette industry.

“Deeming” regulations by the US Food and Drug Administration and strengthened product and advertising restrictions in the European Union were particularly hot topics. To various degrees, advocates argued that these new rules would drive smaller e-cigarette companies out of business and force vapers back to their deadly habit.

In contrast, the United Kingdom was praised by many. Professor Gerry Stimson, Director of UK-based advocacy group Knowledge-Action-Change and chair of the GFN programme committee, provided a four-point summary of that country’s favourable environment: A general acceptance for tobacco harm reduction in the UK’s public health and medicine field on top of demand and supply control; good risk communications and consensus-building by the official Public Health England; positive responses from evidence-led tobacco researchers and civil society organisations; and active lobbying in Parliament by e-cigarette consumers.

“We have 2.9 million e-cigarette users in the UK, 8 million smokers. Of the 2.9 million, a million have stopped smoking. This is a huge public health success at no cost to the government.” Stimson asserted.

Professor Stimson explaining regulatory developments in the UK.
Professor Stimson explaining regulatory developments in the UK.

However, the United Kingdom has recently endorsed strict European standards despite an attempt in Parliament to undo them.

“It’s not as bad it could have been. Nevertheless it’s a strange bit of regulation and it’s a lesson for countries not to burden themselves with legislations when you can do things in less burdening ways, such as an advertising code of practice and a standard regulatory framework just as you can for phones or washing machines and so on,” Stimson elaborated. “So my advice to governments is to avoid jumping to legislation when all the concerns about e-cigarettes can be dealt with as you would deal with other consumer products.”