Jakarta. Plans by the Indonesian government to ban electronic cigarettes raised eyebrows both in the local and international "vape" community, as some users see this as a sign of collusion between the authorities and the tobacco industry.
Critics of e-cigarettes, including officials from the Indonesian Food and Drugs Monitoring Agency (BPOM), said they were concerned about the long-term effects of usage and the possibility of e-cigarettes acting as gateway devices for potential smokers.
E-cigarettes are devices that vaporize an "e-liquid" made of widely-used flavoring agents and nicotine extracted from tobacco leaf.
Trade Minister Rachmat Gobel told the local media in May that the government would soon ban sales of e-cigarettes in the country, but didn’t specify the exact time frame.
Still, even though the ban on "e-cigs" has yet to come into effect, Dimasz Jeremia, owner of vape cafe Ministry of Vape Indonesia, told reporters on Thursday that it has already worried vape distributors concerned over their business prospects.
Dimasz, a vaping advocate, or "vaper," is adamant that banning e-smoking is the wrong option. He argued that e-cigs only contain nicotine and do not include the toxic and cancerous elements of traditional cigarettes.
The cafe owner, who sells vape and all the related components, also said vaping is not at all targeted at teenagers. It is instead targeted at long-time smokers who are looking to give up their addiction using nicotine replacement therapy.
Previously a long-time smoker himself, Dimasz said that almost 20 percent of his clientele switched to vaping before quitting all forms of nicotine intake.
“In 10 years, there will be one billion deaths related to cigarettes. [Vape] is the new technology that reduces the negative effects of cigarettes. Maybe it’s not perfect now, but we have to nurture this technology. [Government] regulations have to protect this,” Dimasz said, adding that a ban would most likely result in the emergence of substandard, black market goods.
The Indonesian government, however, sees e-cigarettes differently.
“The government is expected to establish policies in order to prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to minimize potential risks to health, and prohibit the claim that electronic cigarettes are safe without sufficient evidence,” said Lela Amelia, head of a cigarette control subdivision of the BPOM, as quoted by Antara News on March 3.
Vapers around the globe have criticized the planned Indonesian ban, with some people viewing it as a scheme between the tobacco lobby and the government.
“I would be hesitant, then, to believe that a ban on electronic cigarettes in Indonesia is evidence of anything but profoundly corrupt collusion between the government and the tobacco companies,” Maria B., a writer for Philadelphia-based e-cigarette retailer Vapor Puff, wrote in a online article published on the store's website.
Abdillah Ahsan, an economist and lecturer at the University of Indonesia (UI), has estimated that the local tobacco industry employs more than one million people, with 400,000 working in cigarette production and 600,000 in tobacco farming.
Excise tax paid by cigarette companies makes up around 7 percent of state revenues.
“I believe that [the government] is sincere, that the ban is not because of the tobacco industry,” Abdillah said, listing some of the reasons behind the ban, including the cases of exploding vape devices both in Indonesia and abroad.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s smoking population is also increasing, said Abdillah, with 67 percent of adult males and 6 percent of adult females taking up the habit, up from 50 percent and 1 percent respectively in 1995.
Reasons behind the increase, he added, include pervasive cigarette advertising, low prices and a culture that sees smoking as a rite of passage, with teens considered to be "more mature" if they are permitted to smoke in front of their parents.
“If you are allowed to smoke, you are an adult,” Abdillah said, adding that this is an example of how smoking has become the norm.
Indonesia is the only country in Asia that has yet to ratify the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a system which would prevent illicit trade in tobacco and implement stricter regulations on its sale and consumption.
The government issued tougher policies to curb smoking among Indonesians, including the recent law that requires manufacturers to place pictorial health warnings depicting the detrimental impact of smoking.
Still, about 35 percent of Indonesia's 250 million population are smokers, data from the American Cancer Society shows.
Dimasz insisted that e-cigs may be the solution to help reduce that figure.
“Now, cigarette companies have a zero-nicotine line, but I don’t need zero nicotine, I need zero tar,” he said.