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China regulates e-cigarettes but different standards for tobacco products overseas

13 December 2021,

China, the world’s largest manufacturer of vapor products, will regulate e-cigarettes under the jurisdiction of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.  The government announced they have issued draft rules and will require all e-cigarette wholesalers and retailers to require a license to sell their products through an established unified national electronic cigarette transaction management platform.

China will allow only closed pod systems with tobacco-derived nicotine and tobacco-derived nicotine salts. The rules do not allow synthetic nicotine to be used.

Retailers will also be banned from opening stores near schools. Earlier in 2018, the government had outlawed the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and banned online sales in 2019, while the Chinese state media have warned of the health and safety risks of using the products.

However, China will continue to encourage export of vape products and wants domestic manufacturers to develop markets overseas. As the world’s largest producer of e-cigarettes, profits from the e-cigarette business is huge. In 2021, China’s e-cigarette exports is estimated to reach CNY100 billion (US$15 billion).

The standards China is applying to its domestic situation do not exist in many countries where its products are/will be sold. Double standards abound. Many countries in South East Asia including Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam do not license tobacco retailers (Table 1). 

In Malaysia for example, licensing of tobacco retailers was raised in 2015 but remain forgotten after the issue was transferred to the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board where the tobacco industry (represented by Japan Tobacco International) is a board member. The Coffee Shop Proprietors General Association also opposed licensing of tobacco retailers. 

Table 1: Excessive number of retailers

Country Total smokers Total cigarette retailers Retailers per 10,000 smokers Physicians per 10,000 population
Indonesia 65,700,000 2,400,000 381 4
Malaysia 4,877,697 80,000 164 15
Philippines 16,500,000 694,821 421 6
Singapore 323,000 4,443* 138 23
Thailand 10,676,362 527,839* 494 8
Vietnam 15,602,400 303,333** 194 8

**Ho Chi Minh City has reportedly more than 70,000 cigarette retailers

Tobacco companies, besides selling cigarettes at unlicensed retailers, also sell e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Chinese vape companies will be compounding the tobacco and addiction problem in Asia.

In Malaysia, nicotine is a registered class c poison in the Poison Act. However, this law is being undermined through the rampant sales of e-cigarettes at retail outlet and online. Vaping among adolescents is an emerging problem.

While China will not allow vape products to be sold near schools, no such restrictions exist in many Asian countries. With thousands of tobacco retailers operating in ASEAN countries (Table 1), some of these sell cigarettes near schools.

Indonesia’s experience has exposed how school children have been targeted for cigarette sales. In a survey conducted by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, outdoor advertisements, mainly billboards, can be seen by students outside their school gates at 32% of the schools monitored. The majority of these advertisements are placed in front of the school gate or across the street so that they can be seen very clearly from the school. This problem is also seen in other developing countries. Add vape products to this mix and the problem is magnified – something regulators will not be able to curb.

Adolescent vaping is already a growing problem with a prevalence of 13.5% in Malaysia, 11.7% in Philippines and 10.9% in Indonesia. This is in addition to the growing smoking problem among teenagers. On the other hand, Thailand that has put in place strong tobacco control measures including licensing of tobacco retailers and banning e-cigarettes, vaping prevalence remains a low 3.3%.