Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi wants to outlaw e-cigarettes. “If it were up to me, I would outright ban electronic cigarettes and I will fight for it,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “If there is one industry I don’t sympathise with at all it’s the tobacco industry, for the simple reason there is nothing they have contributed to humanity except great damage.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), since 2005 the e-cigarette industry has grown from one manufacturer in China to a global business worth an estimated $3?billion with almost 500 different brands.
The huge increase in the market and the uncertainty over the health implications of using the products have been what the WHO calls “the subject of a public health dispute”, leading the global body to call for stronger regulation of these devices in a recent report.
‘We will not be fooled’
The WHO also highlights the tobacco industry as being one of the major players in the e-cigarette market and raises concerns about their economic power in the face of regulatory moves.
Motsoaledi pointed out that South Africa has had great success in tobacco control, initiated by the previous health minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Measures have included taxing tobacco products, limiting their use in public spaces and placing health warnings on packaging.
However, he said that “the tobacco industry sidestepped this and came up with the electronic cigarette. And now they are saying they fall outside the ambit of tobacco regulation because they are not tobacco. We are not going to be fooled.
“They are the absolute enemy of the health system. For instance, we will never get rid of tuberculosis as long as smoking is there. So why mustn’t we throw any punches back?”
Tobacco product or medication?
E-cigarettes are banned in a number of countries including Brazil, Singapore and Switzerland, according to Myra Wisotzky, technical adviser on tobacco control for the Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.
She said that e-cigarettes are treated as a tobacco product in countries such as France and Canada, whereas they remain unregulated in the United States, China and India.
Officially, South Africa regulates e-cigarettes as medicines, but experts say this is not enforced and that the products are widely available outside pharmacies.
If South Africa moves to regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products, they would be subject to the same taxes and restrictions on use.
“For now we want to regulate them in the same way we are regulating tobacco products,” Motsoaledi said.