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The end of China’s e-cig boom

Part of the SupChina Weekly Briefing newsletter. Subscribe for free

Photo credit: SupChina illustration

Electronic cigarettes have become a huge business in the U.S. and other Western countries in the last few years, as companies promised smokers a healthier alternative, and targeted teenagers with fruity flavors and viral marketing.

That won’t happen in China, it now seems clear.

  • On November 7, eight government departments, including the National Health Commission, the Publicity (née Propaganda) Department, the National Tobacco Bureau, and China’s film and TV regulator, released a notice (in Chinese) concerning tobacco and e-cigarette use among minors.
  • Though China’s e-cigarette market was small — accounting for only about 3 percent of the global market — it was fast growing, with hundreds of domestic startups formed as foreign companies like Juul were vaporized from ecommerce sites.

A drastic reduction in the marketing and sale of vaping products seems to be the aim of one section of the regulations, on “standardizing the management of electronic cigarette hazards.” Our translation:

In recent years, the usage rate of electronic cigarettes in China has shown a clear upward trend among the youth. The composition of e-cigarette liquid and the secondhand smoke produced by it are not safe. In addition, there is no conclusive evidence that e-cigarettes can help to effectively quit smoking.

All localities should take the initiative to strengthen education on the hazards of electronic cigarettes. Do not promote e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking, and advocate that young people stay away from e-cigarettes.

Regular cigarette advertising is also targeted, with the new regulations calling for restrictions on promotions in public places, and strengthened censorship of films and TV programs that contain smoking scenes, among other measures. However, the government is unlikely to crack down on regular cigarettes as hard as on e-cigarettes, for this reason:

The National Tobacco Bureau, also known as the National Tobacco Monopoly or China Tobacco, is both the regulator and supplier of all the cigarettes on sale in China, and an important tax generator for the Chinese government. However, it does not currently control the manufacture or sale of vaping products — China Tobacco has a vested interest in keeping Chinese smokers on traditional cigarettes.

See also on SupChina: China’s cigarette smoking epidemic by Pei Hao, which looks at how massive tax revenues and cultural normalization stand in the way of China’s tobacco control initiatives.

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