By Marvin Tort
Investors in the “vaping” industry may soon get burned and find their money going up in smoke. Pardon the pun, but that is precisely what will happen if the Executive or Congress — or both — make good the Department of Health (DoH) threat recently to completely ban the sale, importation, distribution, and use of electronic or e-cigarettes and other vaping instruments.
This is a major change since July, when DoH issued Administrative Order 2019-0007 to complement President Duterte’s Executive Order No. 26 that imposed a nationwide ban on cigarette and tobacco smoking in public places starting 2017. The AO expanded the coverage of EO 26 to include “vaping,” or the use of electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems.
As I had noted in a previous column, with the DoH order in July, e-cigarettes — whether or not they use nicotine — were put at par with regular cigarettes and were banned in all places where smoking was likewise prohibited: public areas like schools, workplaces, government offices and facilities, churches, hospitals, transport terminals, markets, and parks and resorts, among others. Containers of vaping products must also have graphic health warnings.
But unlike regular cigarettes, DoH ordered that businesses or entities that manufacture, distribute, import and export, as well as sell or trade online all types of vaping products must first secure permits from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Also, unlike regular cigarettes, a nicotine ban was practically imposed by prohibiting the sale of nicotine “shots” and nicotine “concentrates” used in vaping devices.
By end-October, however, and despite imposing stricter standards on vaping or electronic smoking vis-à-vis regular tobacco-based cigarette smoking, DoH is now calling for a complete ban on the sale and use of vaping products. This was after reports of deaths abroad linked to vaping. Locally, there have been reports as well regarding the ill-effects of vaping.
In a local news report, Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo was quoted as saying that vaping or using e-cigarettes was not a proven nicotine replacement therapy and could cause lung illness as well. Although he did not present any scientific data or research to back his claim. “If the DoH had its way, we would go for an outright ban,” he added.
He noted that vaping was unsafe and bad for one’s health, and that vaping “products [were] not good alternatives to normal or regular cigarettes.” He added there have been 1,604 recorded cases of EVALI or e-cigarette or vaping product associated lung injury in the US. And of this figure, 34 have resulted in death.
Well, Mr. Undersecretary, isn’t it that regular cigarette smoking is just as bad? Why else will the government increase taxes on cigarettes, ban cigarette advertising, require graphic warnings on cigarette packs, and impose other conditions on the sale and use of tobacco products? Why even impose a nationwide ban on smoking in public places if smoking was not just as bad? And how many deaths globally have been directly attributed to smoking? But why aim to ban only vaping and not all types of smoking altogether?
With the AO issued in July, it has become obvious that in the mind of DoH, there is no significant difference between cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Thus, the regulations and parameters for sale and use were put at par. Moreover, since regular cigarettes are heavily taxed precisely for their “negative externalities” as well as their high tax revenue potential, there were plans to do the same to vaping products.
From a business and investor perspective, putting regular and electronic cigarettes at par would appear to be an attempt to level the playing field, where one industry is not given any advantage by public policy or government regulation. On the other hand, putting them at par also negates whatever advantages there are in regarding electronic cigarettes as nicotine replacement therapy. Obviously, more scientific studies must first be presented to prove this.
But it remains uncertain still, at least to me, whether we should lump electronic cigarettes and vaping products with regular cigarettes, or should we categorize them like cigarette alternatives such as nicotine patches and nicotine gums, inhalers, nasal sprays, and lozenges? It is likewise confusing why vaping products are prohibited from using nicotine when it is still allowed in regular cigarettes, nicotine patches, and nicotine gums.
Isn’t it that the ultimate objective of regulation is the protection of public health? Since time immemorial, regulation plus taxation aimed to bring down smoking prevalence and promote public health. Reducing smoking prevalence aims to cut down smoking-related illnesses and smoking-related deaths. By doing so, we bring down health insurance costs and public healthcare costs. Taxes also raise revenues for the government.
This formula has been applied to regular cigarettes and the tobacco industry since the start of the republic. But there seems to be some impression now at DoH that it cannot work for e-cigarettes and vaping as well? Moreover, for the sake of “public health,” DoH prefers a complete ban on vaping but not on regular smoking? But aren’t both products equally detrimental to public health?
If the DoH will call for legislation to ban e-cigarettes and vaping, I believe it should do the same for all other types of “smoking.” No exceptions, no exemptions. This is given the simple fact that any kind of smoking is bad for public health. Local tobacco farmers will just have to shift to another crop, while tobacco and vape producers will just have to go into other businesses. And the government should just look for other sources of tax revenues.
I will strongly support DoH on an absolute ban on all types of smoking, as this will also address the “dirty” issues of littering and air pollution. It will also curb any corruption related to taxing tobacco; cut down smoking prevalence nationwide; put an end to all types of smoking-related illnesses and deaths; and, perhaps pave the way for a healthier population.
But for DoH to call for a ban only on e-cigarettes and vaping, and allow still the manufacture, sale and distribution of regular cigarettes and other tobacco products, and for Congress to follow through on that call, will simply “un-level” the playing field. There will be no significant impact on improving public health; will bring down tax revenue potential from tobacco alternatives; and, will invariably give unwarranted and undue advantage to the tobacco industry, which is in direct competition with electronic cigarettes and vaping products.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.