It's time to ban e-cigarettes before they harm our health

Updated: 2016-03-09 08:02

By Fung Keung(HK Edition)

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Government officials should waste no time in pushing local legislators to pass a law in Hong Kong to ban the manufacture and sale of e-cigarettes in the city.

Environmental protection groups in the city are calling on the government to ban e-cigarettes, after laboratory tests conducted by Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) researchers showed they contain harmful and cancerous chemicals.

HKBU biologists said carcinogens and other harmful substances have been found in e-cigarettes during laboratory tests. A total ban is necessary to safeguard the health of the public, particularly young people. E-cigarettes have been found to contain various harmful ingredients, including nicotine that can cause addiction and toxins that harm people's respiratory and reproductive systems. Many e-cigarettes on sale in the city claim to contain no nicotine but researchers have found this to be wrong.

The Council on Smoking and Health (COSH), a statutory organization, commissioned Hong Kong Baptist University to carry out laboratory tests on the components of 13 e-cigarettes on sale in the local market from October 2015 to February this year.

A variety of e-cigarettes are now available for sale in the city. They can be purchased via various channels and are mainly targeting youngsters. Some young people think it is "cool" to smoke e-cigarettes. However, most of the e-cigarettes neither provide details on components nor carry health warnings. A separate University of Hong Kong study, commissioned by the government's Department of Health, found that about 8 percent of young people aged between 15 and 29 have used e-cigarettes. That is a worrying trend when compared to only about 1 percent of the whole population which has smoked e-cigarettes. The experiences of other countries show that teenagers who have tried e-cigarettes tend to smoke real cigarettes when they grow up.

The HKBU test confirmed that e-cigarettes contain harmful chemicals including formaldehyde, glycerin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are a flame retardants used in furniture and electronic products. These can affect a person's thyroid hormones and disrupt the reproductive process.

Formaldehyde and PAHs are known carcinogens which encourage the growth of cancer cells. The level of formaldehyde and PAHs in e-cigarettes, with chemicals similar to the by-product of burning petroleum, is at least 1 million times more than roadside air in Hong Kong, the HKBU lab test has found. It should cause great alarm - when people inhale e-cigarettes, they suck in air that is a million times dirtier than the polluted roadside air.

Fortunately, government officials are aware of the potential health risks e-cigarettes pose to young people. A senior official with the Food and Health Bureau urged legislators in early March to introduce legislation to regulate e-cigarettes.

The official said she was worried that the colorful designs and varied flavors of e-cigarettes would entice more teenagers to try e-cigarettes and develop an addiction. The Tobacco Control Office under the Department of Health is conducting research on how to put e-cigarette legislation and enforcement into practice. It aims to prohibit e-cigarettes throughout the process, from importing and manufacturing to selling, distributing and advertising. The Tobacco Control Office staff should be praised for reacting quickly to protect Hong Kong people's health.

Among the world's countries and territories, 16 (including Singapore and Thailand) have fully banned the sale, advertising, import, distribution and manufacturing of e-cigarettes. A report in 2014 by the World Health Organization recommended strict regulation of e-cigarettes and bans on their indoor use and sale to minors.

To protect our young people's heath, we should waste no time enacting legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of e-cigarettes in Hong Kong. Let's do it today.

(HK Edition 03/09/2016 page10)