In late February, when Prime Minister Hun Sen unexpectedly announced a ban on e-cigarettes, John became understandably concerned.
John, who gave a pseudonym for the interview, began legally selling e-cigarettes more than two years ago as a hobby. He was inspired by his own experience of trying to quit a heavy cigarette habit that had left him with a serious lung condition, he said at his apartment in Phnom Penh this week.
Wheeling a cart into his kitchen, he described the various battery sizes and different liquids used to create a smoke-like vapor, which come in myriad flavors and range in strength of nicotine content—with the idea that a person can slowly lower their nicotine consumption.
“I used to be a thirty-to-forty-a-day smoker, and five years ago I was diagnosed with emphysema and I asked a friend coming back from Goa through Bangkok, who used them, to bring me a starter pack as they weren’t available in Cambodia at all,” he said, as two customers who declined to be named surveyed the items.
A few years later, when their popularity began growing elsewhere, he decided he would start a small business as a hobby that could provide a helpful service to others, while making a little bit of profit at the same time.
For many smokers like John who have tried to stop smoking, e-cigarettes have proved a successful way to satisfy their nicotine cravings and replicate the habit of smoking by producing a vapor that is inhaled and exhaled like traditional cigarettes, and they are becoming increasingly popular.
Unlike shisha, which is a tobacco product that still carries the risk of the serious health problems faced by cigarette smokers, such as respiratory illness, heart disease and cancer, e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco or produce significant carcinogenic fumes.
Mr. Hun Sen—a lifelong smoker who regularly talks of failed efforts to kick the habit—ordered the ban on e-cigarettes after the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) said it carried out tests on e-cigarette liquid and found it contained a high level of nicotine that could cause a more serious impact on health than cigarettes, according to a report by state-run Agence Kampuchea Presse.
Announcement of the ban was made concurrent with an order to shutter cafes selling flavored shisha tobacco.
The ban thrust Cambodia into the midst of an increasingly controversial debate concerning the as-yet-unknown side effects of the liquid that delivers the nicotine.
On Friday, 53 scientists from around the world wrote to Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, asking the WHO not to classify e-cigarettes in the same bracket as regular cigarettes, after documents were leaked that the WHO will officially brand e-cigarettes a “threat” to public health and advise against their use as a replacement for tobacco.
“There is no evidence at present of material risk to health from vapor emitted from e-cigarettes,” the scientists said in the statement issued by specialists in nicotine science and public health policy. It added that “these products could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st Century—perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives.”
Klauk Choun, an adviser for the Ministry of Commerce’s CamControl department, which works alongside the NACD, confirmed that the ban remained in place.
“I am trying to understand about e-cigarettes too,” he added.
Yel Daravuth, technical officer for the WHO Cambodia’s Tobacco Free Initiative, referred questions to his superiors at the U.N.’s health agency, who did not respond to requests for comment this week. Ministry of Health officials could not be reached for comment.
Though in other countries there is extreme pressure being put on governments to regulate or ban e-cigarettes, mainly by the tobacco lobby, John, the e-cigarette salesman, believes the reason for Cambodia’s ban is likely not so sinister.
“It actually makes me angry [since] we have found something that ticks all the boxes for many smokers. But in Cambodia, I genuinely believe the decision was taken out of ignorance.”
The ban also may be unnecessary, with the price guaranteed to lock most Cambodians out of the market. While a packet of cigarettes can go for as little as 1,000 riel, or about 25 cents, an e-cigarette starter kit starts at $35 and refill liquids start at $3.
Before the ban, John advertised widely and had new customers every two days—but since he stopped promoting the business, customers have trickled to a few a month, though he has regulars who return despite the ban to replace heating coils and top up their liquid.
The fact that he now operates illicitly is also worrying, he said, as it is fairly common for police to extort money from foreigners. He now stashes stock at friends’ houses and said he has the additional worry of neighbors being aware of his business with foreigners wandering around his street asking where the e-cigarette guy lives.
“Maybe the police don’t give a rat’s ass, but who knows,” he said. “I am careful, but I try not to think about it.”
Though the ban has not been revoked, Brigadier General Long Sreng, chief of the Ministry of Interior’s economic police department, said Wednesday he had not even heard of the ban—and said he had tried the e-cigarettes himself.
“I tested them too,” he said, “but I don’t think it will stop me smoking, because I still think cigarettes are better.”