Banned but demand fuels lucrative trade of electronic cigarettes
A black market for contraband cigarettes exploded on the scene in 2006 due to the large 'sin' tax on cigarettes. The same thing has happened with electronic cigarettes since the Government banned them in 2010
They coin cool names for their following and set up forums to discuss the merits of using electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes.
"Vapers", a term used to describe enthusiasts of the nicotine-laced vapour used in e-cigarettes, have also fuelled a thriving black market in the devices.
Users claim the device helps them kick the smoking habit. Addiction experts rubbish the claims, saying the e-cigarettes are harmful, can cause cancer and may well introduce smoking to the young and impressionable.
But some users don't care and with the ban, the price of e-cigarettes have been skyrocketing.
A starter set of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, cost around $100 three years ago in the black market.
Now, you have to fork out nearly twice that to buy the same set.
The New Paper on Sunday tracked down three men who used to sell e-cigarettes illegally. They claim they no longer do it.
We found them through online advertisements, and they returned our call with a private number after we contacted them.
They agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
"Every time the Government talked about enforcement, we would tell our customers that we had no choice but to raise prices because of the risk," says Ben, not his real name.
Another seller says the black market for e-cigarettes is, in fact, even more lucrative now.
The man, who wanted to be known only as Frank, says it is good money for them as they already charge a large markup of 300 per cent over the original price of the products.
A $175 starter set cost $60 to buy in a shopping mall in Johor, Malaysia, says the 34-year-old sales associate.
"People are frightened of being caught, which is why more approach the middlemen instead of trying to get the supplies by themselves," says Frank.
"The ban didn't affect the demand. Instead, I see that the black market is doing better because of the ban."
E-cigarettes use batteries to power vaporisers and have to be refilled with a chemical called the e-liquid.
Users inhale a vapour that can contains nicotine, which users claim helps them quit smoking as it does not contain tobacco. (See report on facing page.)
These vapours usually come in various flavours, such as those of fruits and herbs.
The Government banned them in 2010 as it argued then that they were marketed to appeal to new users, including youth and women.
From 2011 to March this year, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has prosecuted eight persons for selling such products. (See report on facing page.)
It raided one such seller in March who allegedly purchased them from various overseas suppliers to sell via an e-commerce website.
But sellers do not seem to be deterred, says another seller who wants to be known only as Mr Lee.
"It makes more sense to buy e-cigarettes or e-liquid through one person, because if I got caught and fined, my customers promised to pay the fines for me," he says.
Eight have been caught and prosecuted but Mr Lee claims there are far more sellers out there like him.
Says Mr Lee: "As far as I know, the black market consists of many private individuals rather than one big syndicate.
"It's basically people selling the stuff to friends they know and trust.
"It's impossible to catch us all. There is no point in a ban when the supply is so easily procurable."
Sellers get their stock by smuggling them from Malaysia or buying them online, reveals Frank.
"The 'sticks' are dismantled into pieces and the labels are ripped off. I used to pour the e-liquid into Eye-Mo bottles so they can't be detected at the border."
He says the relative ease of smuggling e-cigarette supplies and the profit margins have turned many of his customers into sellers too.
This is how the size of the black market remains stable, says Frank. "Although the risk is great, as long as there is a demand, there will be a supply."
But vapers are taking precautions. Where once they thrived online in several forums dedicated to their habit, they have now become more discreet with their discussions fearing that the authorities are watching them.
And sales of e-cigarettes, once done openly on the forums, has gone underground. Under the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act, the import, distribution, sale or offer for sale of anything that resembles a tobacco product is prohibited.
Offenders may be fined up to $5,000 for the first time, and up to $10,000 subsequently.
'Serious stand' against vaporiser peddlers
More than 9,000 vaporisers were seized between 2013 and last year, said a joint statement from the Ministry of Health, Health Sciences Authority and the Health Promotion Board.
These were mostly confiscated from individuals entering Singapore's checkpoints as well as from parcels en route to people who bought the devices online.
In the same time period, 17 peddlers were caught for selling vaporisers locally.
The stiffest penalty meted out thus far was a fine of $64,500.
"HSA takes a serious stand against vaporiser peddlers," the statement said.
The statement also advises against the use of vaporisers to quit smoking or to reduce nicotine addiction.
It cited a report last year by the World Health Organisation that said vaporisers "can contain cancer-causing agents and toxicants, and in some cases, as much as those in conventional cigarettes".
The nicotine in vaporisers can also cause adverse effects during pregnancy and may contribute to cardiovascular disease, and may promote the growth of tumours.
"Such products are likely to lead to nicotine addiction among users and may also encourage experimentation with other forms of tobacco, in turn leading to chronic diseases and premature death," the statement said.
Smokers who wish to quit can call the toll-free Quitline at 1800-438-2000 or join the iQuit club at www.iquitclub.sg.
They don't help you quit
He had planned to use his electronic cigarette as a form of "therapy" to wean himself off smoking completely.
But it lasted only 10 months.
Mr Jonathan Lim, who is in his 30s, used them while working in Europe.
"I couldn't kick the habit," he says. "It made smoking seem cooler because people would ask about it."
And his e-cigarette was cheaper than cigarettes in the long run because there was no tax, says Mr Lim, a sales executive. As a result, it tempted him to use the e-cigarette even more.
One 75ml bottle of e-liquid costs around $12, which is similar to the cost of one box of cigarettes. But a bottle of e-liquid can last a month.
He stopped using his e-cigarette last year when he read about the heavy penalties he risks if caught using the illegal device here.
Addiction specialists say Mr Lim's experience is typical of e-cigarette users, and that e-cigarette has not proven to be an effective smoking cessation aid.
The proper way, they say, is through the use of nicotine patch or gum, as well as medication.
Dr Thomas Lee, a certified substance abuse counsellor at The Resilienz Clinic, says: "The idea is not to completely cut off nicotine to a person, but to use an alternative way to deliver nicotine to the person without smoking.
"The thing about e-cigarette is that the action of bringing the cigarette from the hand to the mouth is still there. It does not modify his or her behaviour."
Also critical to the treatment process is the use of therapy.
Dr Lee explains that patients have to identify the triggers that lead them to resume their smoking habit. This ranges from boredom to peer pressure.
"It is essential that patients go through a form of assertive training. If they just use e-cigarettes alone as a nicotine replacement, the tendency to relapse is very high."
Private psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow, known for his work in addictions, believes that e-cigarette may be a "gateway drug" for younger kids to start smoking too.
Says Dr Winslow: "The main danger is that non-smokers may see e-cigarettes as a cool thing. And with the many flavours, it can also get younger folk hooked too.
"Perhaps the better implementation is something like what is done for nicotine gum, which is dispensed only to those with prescriptions by pharmacists."