Hong Kong intends to jail vaping offenders

Robert Chan lit his first cigarette aged 18. He quickly became hooked, smoking 15 a day for more than a decade.

Like so many other smokers, Hong Kong-based Chan didn’t savor his addiction. He wanted to quit smoking cigarettes, but struggled to end his nicotine habit.

Two years ago, on his 30th birthday, Chan started using a device that heats tobacco — instead of burning it — to release a nicotine-laced vapor.

Chan is one of the 35 million people around the world believed to be using e-cigarettes or heat-not-burn products, according to Euromonitor.

“I wanted to stop smoking but I wasn’t quite ready to quit nicotine yet,” he says. “I saw this as a bridging device to do something less harmful than cigarettes … There’s no ash, no smell and my lungs and breathing feel better when I use it.”

But today that industry is facing a battle. While many smokers are embracing alternative devices in an attempt to quit cigarettes, governments around the world are divided.

This month, the Hong Kong government announced plans to push ahead with a controversial blanket ban on all e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products.

Under the sweeping draft law, which begins its path through the legislature on February 20, anyone who imports, makes, sells or promotes new smoking products could face six months in jail or a HK$50,000 ($6,370) fine.

Chan says that legislation will make him choose between between becoming a criminal or doing something that’s worse for his health.

“This is either going to send people back to smoking real cigarettes or drive the whole industry underground to a black market,” he says.

The first e-puff

In 2003, Chinese pharmacist Han Li filed a patent for “a flameless electronic atomizing cigarette,” in the manufacturing heartland of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

A year later the world’s first e-cigarettes hit the market in China, and within 12 months they were being shipped around the world. E-cigarettes were seen as an enjoyable and safer smoking alternative — an important product in a country like China where more than 50% of adult males still smoke and lung cancer is the leading cause of death.

The technology works like this: a small lithium battery atomizes a liquid solution of nicotine to produce a fog which looks like cigarette smoke. When smokers inhale they get a similar sensation to puffing on a cigarette, but industry players claim the products can be 95% safer than burning tobacco.

The World Health Organization has cautioned that the long-term effects of vaping are