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0:00 - Intro with Joanna Junak
0:50 - Origins of the importation ban
3:40 - Ban widened to cover manufacture & distribution
4:29 - Consumers are fighting for their human rights
6:41 - Advocates fighting misinformation coming from public health
8:54 - Possession not illegal but vapers arrested
11:13 - Education is our primary strategy
13:32 - Despite the ban,many in the Thai parliament have switched
16:11 - Parliament is looking to change the law
19:21 - The best course is to regulate
21:30 - Black market means no control over sales
25:35 - Closing remarks


Hello and welcome, I’m Joanna Junak and this is GFN News on GFN.TV. In today’s programme we will cross over to Thailand. At the end of August the government of Thailand reaffirmed its opposition to vaping, saying that e-cigarettes are affecting the health of vapers, especially young people. Last week we interviewed Asa Saligupta, director and founding member of ENDs Cigarette Smoke Thailand. Asa told us about current situation regarding vaping in Thailand. Let’s hear the interview.

Joanna: Thank you, Asa, for joining us. Can you tell us why the Thai government is against the use of vaping products?

Asa: Oh, I have to go back to about six years ago. The prime minister at that time, he saw that there's a lot of the shisha pipe and he was concerned because it happened that almost every cafe, restaurants, and every city have those kinds. And he was worried that children might get addicted because it's easily available. So he asked the cabinet to look into the situation of Shisha, the cabinet appointed tobacco control people, some doctors. So they came out with scientific evidence saying that shisha is equally or more harmful than regular smoking tobacco cigarettes. But the problem with vaping is that since these are the same people that went to, I think it was cop 6 in India six years back, if you remember the situation, these are the people representative of Thailand that went to the FCC cop in India and asked the committee, asked the panel to ban vape all over the world. So what's the word, the words from the panels? Where's your evidence? Because at that time, England, for instance, has started to support vaping as a way of quitting smoking and has stated that the rate of success is better than everything else is the best. And so they came back and they still fight. And with the law they just gave the scientific evidence of shisha , but they said these are the result of shisha and electronic cigarettes. So hence the cabinet approved the law to ban the importation ministry of Commerce ban the importation of electronic shisha and electronic cigarettes. That's the beginning. So that's about six years ago.

Joanna: And what happened after that?

Asa: From then on, the Department of Consumer Protection had also come out. That also since it is illegal to import, then it's also illegal to manufacture and to distribute. Plus, of course later than that electronic cigarettes had been categorised as tobacco products. Hence you cannot bear wherever it is that smoking is not allowed. So that's pretty much the bad stories.

Joanna: And what are advocates for vaping doing to change this situation?

Asa: We had been trying. Me personally and our group ECST, ENDS Cigarette Smoke Thailand. We had been going and talking to many people and a few other ministers. Saying that. Hey. First of all, it's not fair because the consumer. The basic human rights we should have. If you want to classify electronic cigarettes as a type of tobacco product, then we should have a choice of our own. We should have the human rights to pick what kind of tobacco product we want to consume into our body. But that didn't happen. And one of the doctors had stated at a governmental national meeting that involved ministers of health, tourism, commerce there's about 50 representatives, including us. Luckily we were invited since we are consumer and specialist and we are very few that there are few people that attended that meeting that know exactly what electronic cigarette is or was. And one of the doctors, I think he's from CDC, he said that the minute you pick up a cigarette, the minute you light up a cigarette, then you don't have that basic human right. The basic human right, you don't have it anymore. So that's the way of our opposition, the way they think that since people who smoke don't have the basic human rights, like we say, I don't know where they got that idea from.

Joanna: It’s worrying to hear that smokers aren’t seen as having basic human rights. How do they justify these measures?

Asa: We've been gaining more and more knowledge. They've been putting out a lot of false and misinformation, like compared with rats, mouse, like guinea pigs. And they've been trying to say, even up until now, saying that electronic cigarettes or vaping is as harmful or more harmful than smoking regular tobacco, combustible cigarettes. So those are the things that we have to fight with. I have talked to Minister of Commerce saying like, well, why don't you leave the ban if you know the truth? The truth is out it's easily, you know, like you have the truth and it's not what is the starting point. The cost of the loss was not true. Then he said that this one came as a favour from Ministry of Public Health, since they have no jurisdiction over vaping or electronic cigarettes. So that means they asked the Ministry of Commerce to ban the importation and then follow with other laws like the consumer protection banning from distribution and from manufacturing. Like I said, you cannot vape where it's not allowed to smoke, but the main laws, that is illegal to import. But what is funny was that was the old law, it was made like 95 years ago, and they pushed this electronic cigarette with it. Five years ago they amended that law.

Joanna: What amendments were made, five years ago?

Asa: After 2017, possession is not illegal. Vaping is not illegal. But you cannot import, you cannot distribute, you cannot manufacture. So it's like, say what? Selling is illegal, buying is not, possession is not illegal. But there are still many people, regular vapers who got arrested just because they process one electronic cigarette and maybe a bottle of e-juice. Eliquid. It also depends on the officers, how he interprets the law. And lately I've been educating people, said, okay, let's leave the safety issue alone first. But what we don't agree with is the corruption, the bribe, because in the end, last Thursday, I just had a meeting, I was at the parliament almost every Thursday, and last Thursday there's a representative from the police headquarters, he's the head of consumer protection, and there's also the representative of the higher district attorney's office. We sat together and ended up saying that it is not illegal, the possession is not illegal. So the parliament is going to issue some kind of a formal letters to the district attorney, the office of District Attorney, plus to the police to pass the word around saying like, hey, you cannot arrest people just for possession. importing, distribution, like sellers, okay, that is still illegal. So we leave that alone.

Joanna: Please tell us more about you and your group, ENDS cigarette smoking Thailand. What motivates you? What are your strategies?

Asa: We are for the people. And what we've done all along is that to educate people. Like for myself, I started with myself about over ten years ago because I smoked for almost 40 years. And first of all, it got me quit smoking completely. I just switched completely. My health was much better, improved, improved, improved. There's a lot of improvement. And so about a few years back, I think the first time we had vapor's voices, the day right after were no Tobacco Day. And in Thailand, four years ago, before that, about two months, I went and have my lung X ray plus blow, the capacity to cheque, the lung capacity. And the same doctor, he's the director of the hospital that I went to, he was surprised and he said, you quit smoking, didn't you? Because I had spots on my lungs. Now the spot is gone. And the result came out that my lungs, the hills of my lung is younger than my real age. And so I asked people, followers from our Facebook, our members, that we have about right now over 100,000 members, approximately, but definitely over ask those who can and who live in Bangkok to do the same. And we got together and we made a press release saying like, okay, you're going to say like, disinfected lungs, the popcorn lungs, those are no, it didn't come from electronic cigarettes. If you switch completely, then, yeah, it's much better for your health. So we've been trying to educate people, and we've been done that for six or seven years via our Facebook group plus our YouTube channel.

Joanna: Why is the government of Thailand not supporting people to have better access to safer nicotine products and thus taking away the chance to have a healthier society?

Asa: One thing is that you have to understand the way of people think here in our LMIC. It’s quite different from developed countries. One of the thing is that you have to trust the doctor. And these are the doctors that came out and said, okay, let me put this at the parliament. Even the president of the board that I went to the meeting, like I told you, every Thursday afternoon before, that was hosted by Ministry of Commerce, and now it's Ministry of Public Health. But the law is already a law came out, right, but even the chairman has said that talk to many doctors who came and gave the false information. Those information are old. The stats you gave are the set of people smoking, not vapers, those are the steps from smokers, know, the lung injuries, the cancer situation, the effect to the brain and such and such. He said, if you want to proof, then after the meeting I have some officials show you around the smoking area, the cigarette, but they are almost non-existent. You're you see vapers flowing around, plus the butts, if you look carefully, it's smaller, meaning that those are from heat, not burnt items, not from cigarettes itself. So even the government people, the representatives, the senators, most of them already switch. So it's the law that how to amend those laws and we are looking at probably within the end of this year or early next year, we will see some improvement, especially with the laws.

Joanna: So, the situation might improve?

Asa: Right now they're going to announce that hey, possession is not illegal. Then they're going to amend the law and say well, since we have estimated at least 1 million vapours or more, the market is probably 10,000 bat, at least a billion baht per year. That is completely in the black market. So they will leave that law. Once they leave the law, then you can import, you can manufacture. Plus we have our own big tobacco because in our country the government owns the tobacco manufacturing company, the tobacco manufacturing company are ready to go into wet market. So that much I can say, because of course I know someone who knows someone definitely, this is for sure. And they already started looking for market. I had mentioned this at the meeting at the parliament already, so I can say it, it's a fact coming out. So, yeah, definitely, but we've been struggling for six to seven years and now we are seeing the light. And hopefully, if you follow the situation in Thailand, the political situation, the Prime Minister is suspended. So the Vice prime Minister is sitting in his place. One of the last paper he issued before he was suspended was ordered to have a committee to look into the situation of Vaping directly. First he talked about Shisha. Now he's talking about saying like insurance is how to leave the ban. How to enable the importation. The manufacturing. Distribution and for the people involved. That he wrote down that people who must be involved. Ministry of Public Health. Commerce. I think. Of course. Public Health. Commerce. Consumer Protection. CDC. Tobacco Control. Ecstas. Plus if possible. Then it also involved Ministry of Tourism of Foreign Ministry because of tourists coming in and got arrested. So that was the order from our prime minister.

Joanna: So, now the Vice prime Minister is on board. What do you expect to happen next?

Asa: I just received a call from the office of Ombudsman this morning. They said that they are setting up a meeting inviting us and there's going to be tobacco control people, minister of Commerce, Minister of Public Health will sit together and they say that they have enough evidence to support us. So everything is coming together from our site from different directions. So we are looking like the ban will be lifted. Next will be up to probably us again, like once they decided to lift the ban. How to regulate, because we don't want like freely open market, of course, how to prevent children from entering, from vaping, from smoking.

So it will be like a collaboration, working together. Because we always insist that hey, we never asked for the freely open market. We're not saying it's 100% safe, but it is safer and needs to be regulated. Even the WHO had stated that the best advice is to regulate it. Or some countries can completely ban it, but beware of the black market and you have to have really strong not regulation, I can't remember the word, but you have to have a strong law to fight against all those black market. And it's going to be much more difficult to control because right now students can say like wow, it's illegal, so you are 70 years old or you are twelve years old, it doesn't matter, it's the same, it's legal product.

Joanna: And I’d like to ask you about youth vaping and the black market. Is vaping among young people a problem in Thailand?

Asa: Yes, definitely. You have to know the instinct, the characteristic of young people. Whatever is bad is challenging. Whatever is challenging, they want to try. Like in the States you can see the trend drop down. The trend, of course, we admit the worldwide, the global trend grows up when one particular product has made like the advertisement that use or younger or the new generations, they're more appealing to use. And now young people say like okay, I'll try it, so move on to something else. Like right now we are big on black pink and whatever Korean pop culture, they just went to something else. But children are children, they want to try. But if it's illegal, it's more challenging and there's no way to control it. But it's illegal for me to sell to 60 years old. It's also illegal for me to sell to twelve years old. So I'm going to sell to everyone because I want to make money. I'm talking about like if I'm a distributor, of course I'm not, but the distributor will think that and say like hey, there's no loss if I get arrested, I'm going to get arrested. There's not going to be any issues between whether it's used, it's minor, it's younger people, it's for the older people, it's for people who quit smoking or it's the people who just want to try for fun, for trendy look like hey, it's cool to wear, they don't care. But if the laws, if the regulation is there, then, you know, like okay, maybe you must have like a driver's licence, you need driver's licence. You need to be a certain age to be able to drive. And the shop might have to be like pharmacy, we might have to set up some kind this are a rough idea. So, you know, the shop has to be licenced. Here in Thailand, if you want to sell tobacco, you want to sell liquor or medicine, the shop has to be licenced. They have to be licenced physicians, they have to be licenced, not vehicles like modest, maybe we don't know about the wording yet, but there might be some kind of licence. And first. Like. You want to come in. Either you have this card proving. Saying. Hey. You are already a vapour. Or if you want to start vaping. Then there must be some kind of interview because in Europe. I went to many web shops in Europe and I really like one thing is that younger generation come first of all they have to prove that they are old enough. 18 or older. I'm talking about like in Austria and Germany. It's 100% black market. All right. And we have a very renowned economist. He's a professor at one of the most renowned university in Thailand. He estimated that the market value of electronic cigarettes will double every year. And yeah, partially it's also from younger generations, from youth that want to try.

Joanna: Thank you, Asa for a very interesting summary of the situation in Thailand. That’s all for today. Tune in next time, here on GFN TV or on our new podcast, for more tobacco harm reduction updates. And on Thursday we are inviting you to watch Brent's interview with Ernest Groman, the Scientific Director of the Nicotine Institut Vienna in Austria. Thanks for watching - or listening! See you next time.