In a marshy Scottish accent (but not so much that he was gargling his words), weary-looking elder gent Andy Morrisson sat on the stage and pleaded to the hundred-odd suited crowd not to take away his e-cigarette.
“Don’t tak’ this awa’ fae me, it wull kill me,” he sobbed, barely hiding his anguish and emotional connection to the little portable charger-looking device he was holding up. “It’s th’ ainlie thing keeping me alive. Aye need it.”
He sobbed a bit more as the crowd went silent. A camera flash went off somewhere, and the panel resumed. Later on during a break, I saw him sipping on some tea and showing his 3rd-generation e-cigarette to a couple of vapers. The ever present waft of candy-scented vapour surrounding them was thick enough to cause condensation on my glasses.
“When in Rome,” I thought to myself as I inhaled a sweet draw of pancake-flavoured vapour through a loaned Bellus RTA tank. Here I was in The Royal Society — UK’s oldest learned society for science — billowing maple syrup clouds alongside dozens of other vapers while watching horse carriages trotting towards Buckingham Palace.
I was in London for a couple of days to attend this year’s E-Cigarette Summit, only to be slightly disappointed that it wasn’t a full on vapecon one would imagine. Sadly absent were the jaunty half-naked models giving out free e-cig juice samples, dubstep DJs or even cloud-chasing competitions. Nope, this conference was where doctors, scientists, health officials and professors assembled to offer their own perspectives on everything e-cigarettes. Also, they were not half-naked, which is a relief.
Yezzir, e-cigarettes — tobacco-free devices people use to inhale nicotine-laced vapour which have surged in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. A lot has been said about their calibre, but health organisations have so far been wary of advocating them as a safer alternative to tobacco. There’s just no long-term proof yet that they’re harm-free (or are even safer than usual cancer sticks) so governments like Singapore’s have made them illegal. That’s why Singapore’s community of vapers have gone severely underground.
You best believe it innocent, unaware Singaporeans — here was a 10-hour lecture that presented hard evidence that fought for lesser restrictions on the e-cigarettes industry while back home, the Ministry of Health (MOH) is outrightly banning it come Dec 15.
Phillip Morris loves you
Full disclosure though folks, I was in London on the expense of Phillip Morris International. You know, the tobacco company who produce Marlboro, Virgina Slims, L&M? Who make billions in revenue out of the backs of smoking addicts? Who are makers of the single greatest cause of preventable death globally?
Yeah, it was kinda hard thinking about all that when you’re setting your business class seat to ‘recline’ after a steak tartare meal while watching Portlandia.
You’d think Phillip Morris bought us — along with a couple of other local online news media — out to do a shill job for them. But nah, not really; they repeatedly stated that they let us write anything we want with no repercussions. Complete editorial freedom, no strings attached. What they wanted from us online publishers was to learn about the merits and fallacies of e-cigarettes, because Singapore’s mainstream media and MOH are fuck-all when it comes to the topic. Eh, more on that later.
Anyway, back to the Summit itself. Thank Odin’s beard that there were quite a bit of breaks in between the long-ass lecture though. Warm and cosy inside the auditorium (away from the 8 degree celcius weather outside) I was dozing off a little during talks such as “Advertising Rules and Marketing after TPD Implemenation” and other Euro-centric issues.
After hundreds of informative slides and a whole bevy of passionate intellectuals talking up e-cigarettes and why it’s the saviour of mankind, it became pretty clear that the summit was this: Anti-tobacco, Pro-vape.
There was evidence by Professor Riccardo Polosa from the Institute of Internal Medicine, University of Catania on how carcinogen metabolite levels in the urine of e-cigarette users is significantly less than tobacco cigarette smokers. There were numbers and figures on how blood pressure control is better for e-cigarette users, improved respiratory symptoms and lung function.
One of the more outspoken speakers at the conference, David Abrams of John Hopkins University scoffed at the idea of e-cigarettes being a “gateway” to cigarette smoking, even though there was evidence of the opposite being true. He added, “Scaremongering about e-cigarettes is not in the best interest of smokers — or anyone. The end game is still to stop nicotine and tobacco use.”
Professor Peter Hajek of the UK Centre for Tobacco & Alcohol Studies remarked in his presentation, “Saying e-cigs are 95% safer is not a medical claim, it is a truth.” He’s referring of course to Public Health England’s official statement that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful to your health than tobacco cigarettes. Grand statement yes? MOH shot it down though, cancelling all hopes that an open discussion about their upcoming ban can actually be held with the public.
To be honest, I felt pretty bad for the one or two speakers (out of 28) at the Summit who were against the normalisation of e-cigarettes, as they tried to present evidence that vaping ain’t as safe as everyone else argued. Pretty unfair fight too, considering the small group of anti-vapers were invited to a summit initiated by the world’s biggest online forum dedicated to e-cigarettes.
Even as a true believer in e-cigarettes as a viable alternative to a traditional ciggies, I cannot in my right vape-infused mind wholeheartedly deny that it comes with its own dangers. Policymakers against vaping will be familiar with studies that state that e-cigarettes is still risky for your heart. There’re studies that mention carcinogenic chemicals (like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde) and toxic metals like nickel are contained in the vapour you suck in. Furthermore, e-cigarettes have only been around for a much lesser time than your usual tobacco cigarettes, so you can’t say that one is undeniably safer than the other.
What Singapore is really afraid of is the fact that it’s hard to regulate and control what goes into the e-liquids, just like how it is in the vapin’ wild wild west that is Malaysia. It’s actually pretty easy to brew your own e-liquid (I know because I made my own. Key lime with a hint of minty afterbirth) and insert whatever narcotics you want inside it. The thought of oblivious people sucking in dirty meth-laced vapour — that’s actually kinda scary.
We’ve going all out to ban e-cigarettes altogether here, with MOH stating that they were taking a “high precautionary level of protection for the public’s health” — based on a single report by the World Health Organisation. The very same people who just told you that bacon causes cancer. Though it’ll be hell on Earth if the world suddenly decided to ban bacon.
Vapers gonna vape
But fuck it, right? Vapers gonna vape, especially since it’s been a couple of months since I had a proper cigarette. While the debate goes on between condescending policymakers and passionate healthcare activists, I feel a lot better than ever before when I switched to e-cigs. I don’t stink anymore, I can actually taste and smell things, and I can even enjoy a nicotine-free vape without bothering others with passive smoking. Besides, I look fucking suave at it too.
Seriously though, you just have to wonder why folks across Asia — especially Singapore — are so against e-cigarettes and vaporisers getting a foothold in the mainstream consciousness. You could start with the very name itself ‘electronic cigarettes’ which brings along a massive list of negative connotations just because of ‘cigarettes’. Which shouldn’t be the case already, because they bear no resemblance to ye olde cancer sticks anymore.
In fact, Singapore is so against the normalisation of vaping devices that mainstream publications have always portrayed the newfangled alternatives as inherently evil. The Health Sciences Authority keep harping on about people getting caught for smuggling e-cigarette paraphernalia while major newspapers have never published anything optimistic about them. Berita Minggu actually dedicated a whole frickin’ page that practically says e-cigarettes are the new satanic overlords. Just recently The Straits Times did the same, making sure readers have nothing but gloom-ridden perceptions towards vaping. It’s all about “protecting the youth” the article says, forcing notions down our throats that it’s a gateway to smoking regular cigarettes (which is very, very debatable).
It’s strange that although Big Tobacco is recognising changing sentiments and moving towards a shift in a tobacco-free future, it’s pretty regressive for Singapore to leave no other alternative than traditional cigarettes for smokers. As it is already, smokers are like a persecuted minority, and the message the government’s sending out to them is that either you quit or you die. If smokers want a relatively safer way for their daily nicotine hit, it’s a wee bit unfair to deny them that option.
Blowing away the stigma
Singapore’s berserker ban on everything socially undesirable has always been the brunt of jokes, but this unsparing prohibition against tobacco alternatives come Dec 15 may prove to be its silliest. And I speak for myself; not for PMI, not for other vapers, and not for smokers.
Every day smokers are dying, and it’s not as if the population of smokers will end anytime soon. Singapore has the opportunity to set an example in Southeast Asia to make a transition from more harmful to less harmful products, but that’s not what we’re seeing. The end goal here is to reduce deaths — fear-mongering and withholding a substantially less harmful product does the exact opposite.
Sure, e-cigarettes are still harmful in some sort but at least it’s not as officially deadly as the pack of cigarettes readily available in all convenience stores right now. It’s just odd really that we are hedging our bets on the definitively lethal thing instead of considering relatively safer alternatives. Between two evils, which do you reckon is the better option?
In the (very British) words of Hertfordshire County Council’s Director of Public Health Jim McManus during the summit in London: “You just can’t sit and dither anymore while people are dying.”
Text: Ilyas Sholihyn & Delfina Utomo
Photos: Delfina Utomo