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Region urged to support vaping to deter smoking black market

Vaping Unsplash
Supporting electronic nicotine delivery systems (Ends) could combat the black market for smoking in the Middle East
  • Vaping and e-cigarette products are sometimes banned in Middle East
  • Mena vaping market predicted to reach $485m by 2025
  • Middle East should follow UK and advocate vaping to stop smoking
  • ‘Clear correlation’ between use of illicit products and increased taxes

High taxes and outright bans imposed in some Middle East countries on e-cigarettes and vaping products have been blamed for pushing smokers to the black market and slowing the transition away from nicotine products in the region.

Black market numbers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE are “alarming” and can only be resolved by restructuring the fiscal framework on electronic nicotine delivery systems (Ends), alongside anti-illicit laws, according to ANDS, a key player which aims to reach 144 million adult smokers in the region.

Mohammad H Agrabawi, senior director of corporate affairs and communications at ANDS, said that Middle East countries should follow the lead of the UK where the National Health Service advocates vaping as a smoking cessation tool.

According to World Bank estimates, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) market has seen a steady decline in tobacco consumption since 2000, down to 19.2 percent in 2020.

However, the emergence of vaping products has been anything but straightforward.

Vapor Voice, an industry resource website, said e-cigarettes were banned in Qatar in 2012 and in Oman three years later, but legalised in Bahrain and Kuwait in 2016 – although neither have adopted manufacturing standards or a taxation structure. 

In 2019, the UAE Authority for Standardisation and Metrology approved e-cigarettes and was the first country to develop standards for the products in the region. Before then, e-cigarettes were illegal in the UAE, and use of the products was growing rapidly in an unregulated market. 

However, after the success of the World Vape Show Dubai in 2021, the first e-cigarette trade show in the region, the number of companies legally producing vapour products in the UAE has grown quickly. Today, it is estimated that there are around 70,000 vapers in the country.

Agrabawi said: “The UAE has been a pioneer in regulating the use and sale of Ends, with solid technical regulations and standards that address the need to verify products before entering the domestic market.

“We are calling on the regulators to push industry players to do more research and establish more scientific substantiation, while allowing adult smokers to make an informed decision towards quitting cigarettes with these products until they can stop using all nicotine products.

“It’s crucial that fiscal and regulatory frameworks of Ends are reviewed to differentiate these products from combustible cigarettes, and to adopt a proportionate harm reduction/fiscal approach.”

Tie, Accessories, Accessory
Mohammad H Agrabawi, senior director of corporate affairs and communications at ANDS

Agrabawi’s comments come after custom duties in some GCC countries soared from on top of the 100 percent excise tax on all nicotine products earlier this year.

He admitted this “came as a surprise to the industry” and increased the cost of Ends.

“The high costs push smokers towards the black market for substandard products that can lead to relapsing to smoking conventional cigarettes again, which is certainly not ideal for smokers who are on the path of quitting traditional cigarettes,” he added. 

He said there is a “clear correlation” between the high demand for illicit products and increased customs duties and taxes on Ends in the region. 

“Although the UAE government has taken significant steps to curb the illicit trade in Ends, the domestic demand is still causing influxes in the black market. We always advise governments to revise the fiscal treatment of these products, define proper measures to protect minors and vulnerable groups, and enforce laws against smugglers.”

In 2021, Saudi Arabia announced new regulations for e-cigarettes similar to the UAE, followed by Egypt this year.

A $56bn global market

In Mena, the market is expected to grow by 9.74 percent annually to reach $485 million by 2025, up from $267.9m in 2018 while the global market is expected to reach $56 billion in 2026.

Asia Pacific was the largest region in the industry in 2021, followed by North America.

Globally there are thought to be more than 40 countries that have some type of ban on vaping – either on possession and use, sales or importation, or a combination.

Agrabawi said authorities in the Middle East should look to the UK’s NHS to design future regulatory frameworks. The NHS and Public Health England advocate vaping as a smoking cessation tool.

“Our mission is to provide adult smokers with better alternatives to replace conventional smoking. This can only be achieved by realising the potential of these products,” he said.

“It starts by understanding that these products should be perceived as a cessation tool for smoking cigarettes, while adopting a medical approach towards cessation clinics and national health systems, similar to the one applied in the UK.

“Adopting such models in the Middle East and the GCC countries would help curb the rising smoking rates and incentivise smokers who want to quit but struggle to do so.”

Vaping and e-cigarettes took time to gain acceptance as alternative to smoking tobacco. Picture: Unsplash

Vaping: the history

In 1927, New Yorker Joseph Robinson filed a patent for a device he called a ‘mechanical butane ignition vaporiser’ but it never really left the drawing board.

In 1963, another American, Herbert A Gilbert, came up with a smokeless non-tobacco cigarette using a battery to heat flavoured vapour but it didn’t catch on. 

In the 1970s, Phil Ray and Norman Jacobson, who designed a filter soaked in nicotine, are credited with popularising the term ‘vape’.

In 2001, Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik came up with the idea of an e-cigarette in a bid to cure his own smoking addiction. His basic concept of mimicking smoking by vaporising nicotine liquid remains the same today.