KUALA LUMPUR, April 10 – The National Poison Centre (NPC) has opposed the declassification of liquid nicotine as a scheduled poison, stressing that nicotine is a potent, harmful, and addictive drug.
In a strongly worded statement last Wednesday, NPC said the exemption of liquid and gel nicotine from control under the Poisons Act 1952 last March 31 – to pave the way for a tax on e-liquids with nicotine from last April 1 – had “shocked” many parties, particularly health care professionals, enforcement authorities, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that have long been working in tobacco and vape control.
“The National Poison Centre is concerned about this issue because nicotine is a type of drug that is potent, harmful, and addictive,” said NPC, a consultation centre for drug and poison information and poisoning management based in Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“Nicotine is the core substance in cigarettes and vape liquids that causes high addiction and reliance on a particular product. It is like a magnet that attracts users to exposure to all sorts of harm from other toxic substances. Without nicotine, a rational person would not inhale other toxic chemicals found in cigarettes and vape liquids.
“Without controls, nicotine content can be formulated with very high concentrations. Current products in the market have nicotine content of up to 50 mg/ ml. This can raise the risk of severe poisoning and addiction.”
The NPC – which is also a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Drug Information in the Western Pacific region – pointed out that if nicotine is added to vape or e-cigarette liquids without monitoring by health care professionals for smoking cessation, this means that the smoker is merely switching their nicotine addiction to another form.
“They are bound to become loyal customers who will benefit the vape industry because they will continue to purchase addictive products for transient pleasures.”
The NPC also highlighted potential abuse of e-liquids with nicotine from the addition of other prohibited substances, including narcotics, noting that it recorded an increase in substance abuse through vape in the past two years.
Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa exercised her ministerial powers last March 31 to gazette the exemption of liquid and gel nicotine as a Class C poison from the Poisons List, overruling the Poisons Board that unanimously objected to the proposal. Last April 1, the government put into effect an excise duty of 40 sen per ml on e-liquids containing nicotine.
The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) said that it, along with pharmacists and anti-tobacco activists, were informed in a meeting last Thursday with Dr Zaliha that she had signed off on the exemption with a “heavy heart” to allow the e-liquid tax.
Dr Zaliha did not respond to CodeBlue’s queries earlier today on what were the public health reasons behind her decision to declassify liquid nicotine, including whether she or the Ministry of Health (MOH) no longer considered nicotine to be a dangerous substance.
The NPC pointed out that the declassification of liquid nicotine from the Poisons Act means that the harmful substance is no longer subject to any control in manufacturing, sale, promotion, and possession.
This is because the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004 under the Food Act 1983 – which regulates cigarettes and other tobacco products – do not define controls of nicotine, vape, or vape liquids. Neither do these regulations control vape flavours, e-cigarette devices, or advertising that can attract new users, particularly children.
The NPC, citing a 2016 study that shows 300,000 teenagers in Malaysia have tried vaping, highlighted problems faced by parents and schools in curbing vaping among minors aged below 18, due to the small size of vape devices and food-flavoured e-liquids, worsened by the current lack of regulations.
“The current gap in legislation to control nicotine is rather worrying. How many of our young generation inheriting the country will fall into nicotine addiction during this period?” said the NPC.
“Do we want to accept vaping as a Malaysian culture, irrespective of age, including among children and women? Surely this culture is not in line with the values of Malaysia Madani.
“Therefore, the NPC calls for the suspension of the implementation of this decision until a new bill to control any smoking and vape product is passed, particularly the generational end game (GEG) that was tabled previously by the Ministry of Health.”
Although both Dr Zaliha and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim have promised that the government will table the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 (renamed as the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023) in the next parliamentary meeting in May, not a single MP – whether from the government backbenches or the Opposition – has publicly expressed support for the bill, despite the health minister’s recent briefings for parliamentarians on changes in the bill.
The bill’s legislative history is fraught with objections on both sides of the divide when then-Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin unsuccessfully tried to get it through the 14th Parliament late last year.
The upcoming Dewan Rakyat meeting, which is scheduled for only 11 days from May to June, will be held shortly before six state elections that are expected to be held in July.