RIYADH: Throughout the course of history, nicotine has always been one of humanity’s greatest vices.
A more socially acceptable drug than most, and a religious and moral grey area, people have smoked it, chewed it, applied it to their skin in patches and now they are vaping it.
Vapes fall under the category of reduced risk products (RRPs), items with the potential to cut the dangers associated with smoking. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, fall into this category, as do vape mods such as Juul devices, Logic vapes, and more.
Vaping is a $14 billion (SR52.5 billion) global industry, and has seen a 46 percent category value growth, according to statistics from Japan Tobacco International (JTI).
But vaping is not necessarily as new as many people might think. The first recorded use of the words “electronic cigarette” appeared in 1930, yet modern vaping as we know it only emerged in the early 2000s. Opinion, however, is still deeply divided about its health merits.
Modhi Al-Ajlan, a cigarette smoker since her early 20s, will be 39 this year. Although she has wanted to quit cigarettes for some time, she is reluctant to try vaping due to the stigma attached to it.
“It’s too new, I don’t think there’s enough long-term research to prove that vaping is healthier than smoking cigarettes. I’ll take my chances with a known enemy rather than leave myself open to the mercy of an unknown one,” she said.
Others, such as Farhan Alalem, disagree. He told Arab News that vaping was much better for him than cigarettes ever were. “I tried quitting cold turkey four or five times. Since I started vaping, I’ve hardly had any cigarettes at all. I don’t ever want to go back, it’s the only thing that’s worked for me.”
The issue remains divisive, even among experts. Concerns over at least seven deaths and 500 hospitalizations in the US, seemingly linked to vaping, have led to a series of bans across America. Several states have already stopped the sale of e-cigarettes and vaping products, and President Donald Trump even commented on the issue, calling for an outright ban of vape products.
However, at the 2019 E-Cigarette Summit, held in London last month, multiple speakers reported that the problems the US was facing were due to poor regulations in the country, as well as the illicit manufacturing of vape juice.
Improper regulation is said to contribute to the spread of vape liquids containing unconventional ingredients such as THC, the key psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, or vitamin E acetate, which is harmless if consumed but could be dangerous if inhaled.
However, in the UK and other parts of the world where vaping is much more strictly regulated, no serious side effects have yet been recorded, causing the pro-vaping lobby to hail Britain as an example of how to lead on the issue.
The UK has much stricter laws about advertising cigarettes and other tobacco products, as well as firmer regulations against selling to minors and harsher punishments for those who ignore the rules.
Conversely to the US, where youth smoking has been on a rapid rise, the London Smoking Toolkit Study reported that 5 percent of 16-17-year-olds smoked, compared to 23 percent in 2007.
John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England, said: “In England, smoking among adults and children has fallen to record lows. Vaping is not renormalizing smoking, regular e-cigarette use among children remains rare and confined largely to young smokers and ex-smokers, and most e-cigarette users have stopped smoking completely.”
In the Middle East, the whole subject of vaping is a grey area. In Saudi Arabia, for example, vaping is allowed, but vape mods, e-juice, vape liquid, and any other RRPs are not available for sale in official shopping outlets.
According to information sourced from JTI, of all the Gulf states only Saudi Arabia and the UAE currently have proper regulations in place for RRPs. In Bahrain and Kuwait, they are permitted only under the name of “e-shisha,” and in Oman and Qatar they are not regulated at all.
Hadi Sleiman, JTI’s director of corporate affairs and communications in the Middle East, believes that Gulf-state governments should open the door to conversation in order to make the products more accessible to those who would use them, while also keeping them safe.
“Policy-makers need information. If you don’t have an open dialogue, how can you make the best decision for the country?” he said.
However, health experts have at least agreed for the time being that, while they do not recommend smoking of any kind, vaping is a healthier alternative than traditional tobacco smoking.