Last October, a Hong Kong Official had announced a complete ban on e-cigarettes and other innovative tobacco products, in an unexpected U-turn by the government. In June 2018, Hong Kong’s lawmakers had proposed more sensible regulations that would have banned the sales of e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn products and herbal cigarettes to minors, place health warnings on the packaging of these products, and also ban any advertising. Essentially these rules would have regulated these products in the same way as combustible cigarettes.

However, the following month, the Committee on Home-School Co-operation and the Federations of Parent-Teacher Associations had distributed questionnaires to parents of students in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, in order to gauge their opinion about vaping. And the results had indicated that most parents wanted the products to be banned.

An unreasonable ban

“Ultimately, the government’s goal of discouraging the habit won’t see vapers stop smoking. Rather, they may well turn to traditional cigarettes.”

In response to this, the government had decided on a harsher ban, and earlier this month a bill amending the current Smoking Ordinance to include new e-cig regulations, was submitted to the Legislative Council. Under the proposed law, it would still be legal to use vaping products, though doing so in a non-smoking area would be subject to a fixed fine of HK$1,500 or a court-imposed fine of HK$5,000.

On the other hand the import, production, distribution and promotion of vaping products would be banned and anyone who fails to comply could face a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$50,000 if convicted. Distribution in the form of a prize or gift would also be prohibited, while cargo and people in transit will be exempted.

This motion has naturally caused an uproar amongst harm reduction experts, and an article on the South China Morning Post pointed out that the reason being given for this ban “ is simply bizarre – and that’s putting it nicely.” The government is saying that the ban is needed and justified so that people, especially minors, are not encouraged and misled into smoking.  But then why are vaping products, and not cigarettes targeted, when research indicates that the devices are excellent harm reduction and smoking cessation tools?

The unsound “Gateway Theory” keeps informing policy

Of course the rationale offered for this goes back to the infamous, and proven inaccurate “Gateway Theory”, or the hypothesis that vaping may lead young people to take up smoking by hooking them on nicotine. However the rise in vaping rates, and the drop in smoking rates observed in countries where the devices are fully endorsed, such as the UK, is an indicator that there is no truth to this theory.

“And our policymakers must have forgotten what adolescence is all about: usually, the more that adults “ban” something, the greater the incentive to do what is not allowed. Even more convoluted is that the government’s ban doesn’t prohibit the use of e-cigarettes. The reasoning is that it isn’t trying to punish users,” pointed out the article.

“Yet, in fact, it is: the ban will just encourage people to buy from the black market that will flourish. And, ultimately, the government’s goal of discouraging the habit won’t see vapers stop smoking. Rather, they may well turn to traditional cigarettes.”

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