The government is proposing stricter laws to curb smoking, including limits on 'electronic' cigarettes. Picture Nam Y. Huh/APA

Johannesburg - The Vapour Products Association (VPA) of South Africa has warned the government that its new Tobacco Bill threatens to deprive millions of citizens of a safer alternative to smoking.

This was revealed at a conference in Sandton this week, where scientists, policymakers and medical and public health professionals gathered to examine the latest scientific research and evidence on e-cigarettes and debate their impact.

The self-regulating industry body of vapour product manufacturers and importers believes that should the new bill be passed in Parliament, it could wipe out the vaping industry in South Africa.

The Department of Health officially released its Draft Tobacco Bill for public comment in May this year. Among other proposals, the bill plans to ban smoking in certain public spaces and significantly clamp down on what advertising may be used to promote tobacco products.

Some of the proposals include a zero-tolerance policy on indoor smoking in public places (including the removal of designated smoking areas in restaurants), a ban on outdoor smoking in certain public places, the removal of all signage on cigarette and electronic delivery systems (e-cigarettes, vapes) packaging aside from the brand name and warning stickers; and cigarettes and electronic delivery systems may no longer be publicly displayed by retailers.

Zodwa Velleman, the chief executive of the VPA, argued that the proposed bill, which “lumped e-cigarettes and cigarettes in the same regulatory basket, is unscientific and potentially devastating.

“Vaping products must be regulated separately. International evidence shows they are at least 95% less harmful and countries that have embraced them, like the UK and the US, have seen their smoking rates plummet in recent years.

“The reality is that millions of smokers who might switch to safer alternatives will just keep smoking and dying instead, as a result of this new law.”

Velleman believed the bill would not only be disastrous for South African smokers looking for less harmful alternatives, but would also see thousands of jobs go up in smoke.

An economic impact study by Canback Consulting, unveiled at the conference, showed that the vaping market in South Africa is already worth more than R1billion and supports 4000 full-time jobs.

“The e-cigarette market is projected to grow aggressively and will more than triple in the next decade. This will only happen if the government separates e-cigarettes and traditional tobacco products in the new bill,” said Velleman.

“Taxing e-cigarettes at the same level as tobacco could be detrimental to this category.”

Velleman added that the department had failed to engage with business and ignored best practice from other countries.

The VPA referred to two international studies which showed why e-cigarettes should be regulated separately from tobacco.

Public Health England, in a report authored by addiction researchers at King’s College London and the Queen Mary University of London, found that electronic vaping products were 95% less harmful than traditional cigarettes and helped smokers quit tobacco more successfully.

The Cochrane network of health researchers considered all studies conducted until 2016 where electronic vaping products were used to help people stop smoking tobacco, concluding that electronic vaping products were considerably safer than traditional cigarettes.

“We want to work with the department to reduce the impact of non-communicable diseases and their costs to the country’s healthcare system. It is imperative that we provide smokers with a far less harmful alternative to tobacco,” said Velleman.

Anti-smoking expert Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, a research fellow at the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Centre in Athens and the University of Patras in Greece, said it would be "irresponsible" for the government to apply the same regulations to e-cigarettes as tobacco cigarettes.

“We need regulations, but (this) does not necessarily mean bans or over-regulation. It must be reasonable, proportionate and realistic. And this isn’t realistic at all,” said Farsalinos.

He believed information on e-cigarettes needed to be openly available to the public in South Africa.

“Very few smokers believe the truth that e-cigarettes are far less harmful. Some believe that it is equally if not more harmful than cigarettes, so by applying marketing and display restriction you are basically protecting the established product, which is tobacco cigarettes.

“These restrictions provide a clear but very wrong message that e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes are the same thing.”

The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (Tisa) agreed that tobacco cigarettes, electronic delivery systems and other new-generation products should be dealt with in a separate regulatory framework.

Tisa chairperson Francois van der Merwe said electronic delivery systems should be given a chance in South Africa.

“Various voices, including from the medical fraternity, around the world are saying that the new-generation products are less harmful than traditional cigarettes There is space in the market for both tobacco products and new-generation products.”

Meanwhile, the National Council Against Smoking said there was enough evidence to show e-cigarettes were just as dangerous as tobacco cigarettes.

“These products cause harm to the heart, to the lungs, to the respiratory system, so from a health point of view it is very necessary that they are regulated,” said executive director Savera Kalideen.

Public consultation on the bill closes next week.

The Saturday Star