Vaping ban may invite public health crisis

A proposed ban on vaping in a draft legislative amendment has given rise to large scale outrage, with opponents claiming that policymakers did not consult stakeholders before putting forward the new legal provision for ban.

A government official with the National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC), however, said that vape traders and users can not be regarded as stakeholders by the health ministry.

Proposed amendments in the Smoking and Using of Tobacco Products (Control) Act include a new ban on e-cigarettes or vapes, under which production, import, export, storage, sale and transportation of e-cigarettes or their parts will be prohibited.

The country’s major organisation of vaping product traders, Bangladesh Electronic Nicotine Delivery System Traders Association (BENDSTA), in a press conference, expressed frustration at the government’s reluctance in engaging them.

But more notably, vaping advocates have raised the concern that a blanket ban will derail the prime minister’s plan for making the country tobacco-free by 2040 since countries with similar vision such as New Zealand, the UK and others are opting to regulate these reduced-risk products.

BENDSTA President Schumann Zaman believes banning vaping products will harm Bangladesh’s goal of becoming tobacco-free. “Research by The UK Health Security Agency (formerly known as Public Health England) found that vaping is 95% less harmful than cigarette smoking. Policymakers cannot ignore such an important finding,” Zaman said.

“We believe vaping can help reduce smoking in Bangladesh. It should be regulated under specific guidelines so that it can play an important role in realising the Prime Minister’s vision of making Bangladesh ‘tobacco-free’ by 2040,” said Zaman.

Hossain Ali Khondoker, Coordinator (Additional Secretary) of the National Tobacco Control Cell (NTCC) of the Health Services Division of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, says nicotine in e-cigarettes are “more harmful” and the Health Ministry does not recognise vape or tobacco traders or users as stakeholders.

“Nicotine in e-cigarettes is raw or liquid nicotine. It is more harmful than natural nicotine,” said Khondoker, who does not accept that the e-cigarette or vape is an acceptable quitting tool.

Khondoker also does not accept the UK Health Security Agency (Public Health England) report that found vaping 95% less harmful as fully credible. According to the additional secretary with the NTCC, “Bangladeshi experts” believe the “raw nicotine” in vapes is “more harmful”.

The NTCC Coordinator also said that Bangladesh cannot implement laws like the UK, where he says, vapes can only be used after a doctor prescribes it. “In England, rule of law is stronger than Bangladesh and the general public there tend to respect laws more than here,” he said.

Khondoker said that the Ministry of Health does not recognise anyone in the tobacco industry as stakeholders, as it is obligated under World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to not engage with them.

“Article 5.3 of the FCTC clearly states that Bangladesh government official cannot talk to manufacturers (of tobacco)”

According to clarification by the European Court of Justice, Article 5.3 does not prohibit all participation of the tobacco industry in the establishment and implementation of rules on tobacco control, let alone on public health policies (such as regulating reduced risk products) or other matters (e.g., commercial, legal, administrative, etc.), and seeks transparency and accountability.

The additional secretary believes individuals and organisations connected to the tobacco industry are not stakeholders. “When the illegal drug control department makes policy on (addictive) drugs, do they talk to drug dealers? Or does the police department talk to criminals before carrying out their work?” he said.

Seeking anonymity, a former senior policymaker said, “It is unconstitutional and against the Rule of Business to not include relevant stakeholders before making any law or amendment.”

“Tobacco is a legal product in Bangladesh, and it is unconstitutional to label it similar to drug or tag its traders as criminals,” he added.

BENDSTA president Schumann Zaman also believes that the additional secretary’s comments regarding vape use in the UK are not factual and severely misinformed since vapers don’t require a prescription to buy vaping products.

“According to a BBC report, data from UK Action on Smoking and Health suggests that the number of vapers in the UK have gone up from 700,000 in 2012 to 3.6 million in 2019 with 54% successfully quit smoking with the use of these products. E-cigarettes allow users to inhale nicotine in vapour rather than breathing in smoke which makes it much safer,” he said.

Zaman also criticised Hossain Ali Khondoker’s dismissal of The UK Health Security Agency report. “The UK Health Security Agency (Public Health England) is a highly respected organisation under the UK’s health ministry which is a centre of excellence for public health policymaking. It is childish to claim that some unnamed local ‘experts’ are more credible than The UK Health Security Agency,” Zaman added.