A demonstrative policy debate event on whether e-cigarettes should be regulated was held on Tuesday in Taipei, showing how different public policy viewpoints can be rationally discussed.
The debate was held by the Chinese Debate Promotion Association (CDPA) at the Taipei NGO House.
CDPA chairman and founder Chia Pei-te (賈培德) said that the Executive Yuan in January approved a draft amendment to the Tobacco Hazards Prevention Act (菸害防制法) proposed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, for legislative review.
Photo courtesy of the Chinese Debate Promotion Association
The proposed regulations on emerging tobacco products have sparked discussions, he added.
The amendment would classify emerging tobacco products as “tobacco-like products” and “designated tobacco products,” he said, adding that e-cigarettes would be classified as “tobacco-like products” and be fully banned, while heated tobacco products would be classified as “designated tobacco products” and be subject to regulation.
Debate participant Huang Kuan-lin (黃冠霖) said the government’s reasons for banning e-cigarettes — including teenagers being curious to try them, consumers being able to add nicotine to e-cigarettes’ e-liquids, also known as vape juice, on their own and increased risk of teenage users turning to smoking cigarettes — are unreasonable.
E-cigarettes are illegal, but many teenagers have obtained them through various channels and have been regularly smoking them, he said.
Smoking cigarettes is legal for adults, so the government should not ban the use of e-cigarettes to prevent teenagers from smoking, he said.
Huang said that regulating, but allowing, e-cigarettes could instead avoid health harm caused by unregulated e-cigarettes with uneven quality, as the government can set safety and inspection standards for the products.
Tax revenue from e-cigarette sales would be an additional benefit, Huang said.
Cross-examining Huang’s statement, debate participant Bi Ying-ying (畢盈盈) said that a random inspection of e-cigarettes showed that more than 90 percent of them contained harmful substances, and most of them would be banned when the amendment takes effect.
Should drugs be legalized just because many people are using them and tax revenue could be generated through their sales, Bi asked.
Debate participant Wu Jui-che (吳瑞哲) continued to question whether illegal drugs should also be regulated to control their quality and because many people are using them.
Citing the precautionary principle, he said that the government should adopt precautionary measures when a product is suspected of causing harm to the public, even if there is no scientific evidence.
Studies have found that several types of harmful substances are found in e-cigarettes, including a ministry survey that found that all products tested contained formaldehyde, a probable human carcinogen, he said.
Cross-examining Wu’s statement, Huang asked whether heated tobacco products should also be banned if their health risks are uncertain and what policies would be enacted should all potentially risky products be banned.
Wu replied that the government has the responsibility to protect the public’s health and banning e-cigarettes would not affect most people’s lives.
Debate participant Liu Zhen-wu (劉振珷) said e-cigarettes are sold in more than 500 brick-and-mortar stores in Taiwan, as well as online platforms, so that many adults and teenagers are purchasing products that have various harmful ingredients.
Countries that allow the use of e-cigarettes have set safety and inspection standards to regulate them, Liu said, urging the ministry to set e-cigarette standards to protect public health.
Some studies have found that the levels of harmful substances in e-cigarettes are lower than in cigarettes, but cigarettes are not banned, and neither are sugar or fat, which are also associated with negative health effects, Liu said.
Bi said that other studies have found that e-cigarettes contain more harmful substances than cigarettes and the long-term effects are unclear,
Without a mandatory health warning on their packaging, the large variety of e-cigarette flavors would attract young people to try them, Bi said.
The nation has ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, so while the long-term goal is reducing all tobacco use, the government should not permit the use of e-cigarettes while perusing the goal, she said.
A delayed ban of e-cigarettes would be as difficult to implement as banning guns in a society where gun ownership is common, she said.
Liu said the arguments in the debate about teenagers using e-cigarette were redundant, as they are also banned from smoking cigarettes.
The questions should be how much the government should intervene with personal freedom when members of the public are facing potential harm, Liu said.
Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and consuming sugary foods or beverages can be addictive, but they should be allowed and the public be informed about potential harm to their health, he said.
People should have the freedom to decide what to consume and manage their risks, he said, adding that the government should tolerate people’s choices.
Bi said that e-cigarettes are recreational products that have immediate effects and possible long-term negative health effects, so if the public agrees that they cause unnecessary harm to society, the government could impose a ban, just like the EU bans meat products containing traces of the feed additive ractopamine.
Invited to comment on the debate, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University (NYCU) College of Pharmaceutical Sciences dean Kang Jaw-jou (康照洲) said that he was moved by opinions for and against e-cigarettes.
He said the affirmative side proposed to directly manage e-cigarette use through regulations and an approval system, while the opposing side stressed their attitude to life — banning a substance if the public consensus deems it harmful to society.
The discussion involved scientific evidence and human needs, Kang said.
NYCU Faculty of Pharmacy associate professor Wang Hsiang-tsui (王湘翠) said that many aspects of the topic can be argued, but it was clear that e-cigarettes can cause negative health effects, and supporters and opponents must clearly present this fact to the public in further discussions.
Taiwan People’s Party Legislator Tsai Pi-ru (蔡壁如) said that from the perspective of a mother and a healthcare professional, she thinks the government should ban all tobacco products in the long term, but as a legislator, she thinks that smokers’ individual rights should be protected by mechanisms such as setting up smoking areas in public spaces.
She said that policies should consider different opinions from members of the public and the professional opinions of specialists, and discussions must continue so that people can communicate their values and opinions on the issue.
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