KUALA LUMPUR Outside a convenience store in Shah Alam in Selangor state, a group of secondary school students huddled together, sharing several flavoured e-cigarettes they had bought.

The 15- and 16-year-olds were vaping in the open while exchanging their opinions on the flavours they were trying.

Ive always wanted to try smoking but I was scared my parents could tell from the smell, Syed Ikhmal Syed Ramadani, 15, told The Straits Times on Wednesday. But vaping smells so good. My parents wont know, and we can now buy it openly.

The teenagers were taking advantage of a recent legal loophole in Malaysia that allows vape products to be freely sold to and consumed by minors after a controversial move by the government.

Liquid and gel nicotine, key ingredients of e-cigarettes and vaporisers, were removed from the list of scheduled poisons from April, with the government now imposing a tax on vape products and e-cigarettes.

The Poisons Board objected to the delisting, but Health Minister Zaliha Mustafa exercised her ministerial powers to override it.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim told Parliament on Tuesday that the government will tax nicotine-laced products to prevent the substance from being spread widely at low prices.

He said his administration is committed to tabling the tobacco and vape control Bill in May.

Taking quite extreme measures by banning vape, nicotine or cigarettes is quite drastic and cannot be done by any country in the world. Many choose to smoke even despite the various campaigns done, Datuk Seri Anwar told Parliament.

While we are running a campaign about the negative effects of smoking, we also continue implementing this taxation to prevent the substances from becoming widely available and cheap.

The upcoming Generational End Game (GEG) Bill, officially known as the Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill 2022, seeks to ban the use, possession and sale of cigarettes and vape products to those born after 2007.

But for now, those below 18 are free to use products containing nicotine liquid and gel without regulation, sparking a public outcry among health practitioners and parents.

Reacting to the news, the Johor state government said its 2016 ban on the sale of vape products, including equipment and liquids, remains in place.

Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control (MCTC) said the governments action to remove nicotine substances from the Poisons List will lead to more children taking up vaping and potentially becoming addicted.

The issue is, even if they (the government) table it (the Bill) in May, theyve now opened the field to a lot of new young people to actually start vaping with nicotine. Nicotine is the fundamental driver, MCTC chairman M. Murallitharan told ST. The longer you wait to table the GEG, the more youre actually poisoning the well. More On This Topic Vape shops in Malaysia selling to customers from S'pore with pick-up in JB Clandestine labs and online retailers fuel rise in vaping in Malaysia Likening nicotine addiction to that of heroin, he said nicotine is categorised by the United States Food and Drug Administration and similar agencies in other countries as a highly addictive substance.

The idea of introducing someone to this addictive substance will make them an addict over the short term, said Dr Murallitharan, medical director of the National Cancer Society of Malaysia.

The Malaysian Health Coalition said in a statement on Tuesday: We are deeply concerned about the public health implications of vaping and tobacco use, especially in children and teenagers. We support the GEG and we favour an outright ban on vaping. Strict regulations will bring Malaysia in line with increasingly prevalent international norms.

The coalition, which comprises the Malaysian Association for Bronchology and Interventional Pulmonology and 28 other organisations, has urged the government to hold off collecting taxes and delisting the nicotine substances from the Poisons List until the Tobacco Regulations and Control Bill is passed, and to debate and decide on the legal status of vaping in Malaysia as part of the Bill.

And once youre addicted to the substance, be it heroin or nicotine, you end up continuing to need and crave the substance in increasingly higher dosages, irrespective of where they get that nicotine from, Dr Murallitharan said.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the use of e-cigarettes is unsafe for children, teenagers and young adults, as nicotine is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.

Jurisdictions that partially or completely ban vaping include Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia, Brazil, Canada and many states in the US.

Typically priced between RM16.90 (S$5.10) and more than RM100 in Malaysia, a disposable vaping device contains up to 9,000 nicotine-laced puffs. More On This Topic askST: What are the dangers of vaping? Illicit vaping on the rise, more caught in 2022 Checks by ST found that industry players are looking to raise prices by 20 or 30 per cent. But the price hike would not make much impact on minors, Dr Murallitharan said.

I have secondary school students as patients spending only RM5 to pool together to get devices which have 6,000 to 8,000 doses. With the price hike, they may need to spend RM1 more, he said.

Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia chairman Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, however, said a better way would have been to preserve the status quo.

Vaping will eventually lead to smoking. If they (minors) are even aware of the exemption, they will be tempted to vape openly… as they believe it improves their self-image, she told ST.

Echoing the sentiment, architect Zainab Salim, 47, said: As a parent, my concern is my child justifying that he isnt doing anything wrong when in truth, vaping does pose some health risks. More On This Topic Vaping among youth needs more attention in Singapores anti-smoking drive Cross-agency pilot to strengthen enforcement action against vaping

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