In CodeBlue’s investigation of 10 vape stores in the Klang Valley, most tried to push their nicotine products to non-smokers. Some say it’s the flavour or how you vape (stressed/ relaxed) that determines addiction. “It’s like drinking coconut water”.
With its wooden furnishing and light filtering in through tinted windows, the vibe of a vape store in Kuala Lumpur is reminiscent of Malibu drink shacks that dot summer Hollywood movies.
The wooden shelves behind the counter are lined with flamboyant bottles and boxes of various shapes and sizes, and the glass case that forms part of the counter boasts sleek, vibrant vape pens, disposable pods, and e-liquids.
And with product names such as lemon mint, red mojito, and watermelon ice, I feel as though I have popped into a bar for a cooler rather than a vape shop.
Although not all vape shops in the Klang Valley sport the beach vibes of this one, many e-cigarette stores — where customers can lounge and vape on sofas, exhaling large billows of vapour — have a pleasing ambience of sophistication and modernity. These shops even offer vape testers for customers to decide which flavours to purchase, not unlike makeup counters in departmental stores.
The underlying message from sleek vape stores is clear: vaping is cool; it’s a lifestyle. This is not your grandfather’s dirty cigarettes smoked by groups of old uncles and pak cik in a kopitiam. More importantly, vaping is marketed to women as much as men, unlike tobacco that is primarily smoked by men.
But beneath the veneer lies an insidious industry with an insatiable hunger.
As long as vape regulations have yet to be enacted, Malaysia’s youth — primarily fresh secondary school graduates — is left defenceless against the devious ploys used by this ravenous industry to gain new converts.
Though one could argue that the vape industry has been operating for years (illegally) in broad daylight, the removal of liquid nicotine from control under the Poisons Act 1952 since last March 31 has only served to embolden and speed up the entrepreneurship of industry players. They have pounced upon the opportunity to begin targeting ads toward a new demographic — children and teenagers.
Curious to understand the rapidly changing landscape, CodeBlue set out earlier this month to visit 10 vape stores across Bangsar, Damansara, Puchong, and Subang Jaya, as well as many mini-marts and convenience stores in between, to uncover the vape industry playbook and the changes that have taken place since the delisting of liquid nicotine.
The plan is simple: where possible, I would venture into shops as a health writer. Otherwise, I would go undercover as a 23-year-old interested buyer who has a history of asthma, has never smoked a cigarette in her life, is stressed out at work, and has a younger sister who is still in primary school.
I choose to start my journey in my official capacity as a health writer at the large chain convenience stores and mini-marts such as 7/11, 99 Speedmart, Family Mart, and Giant Mini, which have roots in many housing areas and business centres.
It quickly becomes apparent to me that these large chains choose not to sell vape products and opt to focus on traditional cigarettes and heated tobacco products.
The key difference between e-cigarettes and heated tobacco devices is that e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco and use e-liquids, while heated tobacco devices use tobacco sticks that resemble cigarettes.
The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that heated tobacco generally contains lower levels of harmful ingredients than smoke from regular cigarettes; however, scientists are still learning about their short- and long-term health effects.
In Malaysia, the heated tobacco market is currently dominated by US-owned Philip Morris International with their IQOS heated tobacco devices and HEETS tobacco sticks, and British-owned British American Tobacco with their glo heated tobacco devices.
Unlike vape products, the heated tobacco industry still falls under the purview of the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004 enacted under the Food Act 1983 — eliminating the advertisement of products and limiting its sales to those aged 18 and above.
While the above holds true for the HEETS tobacco sticks packaged in warnings, the same can’t be said for the heated tobacco device. Most displays for the IQOS and glo devices sport price cuts and promotions for the devices.
However, unlike vape companies such as Elf Bar, which employ young female models in their UK adverts, the Malaysian heated tobacco device adverts do not employ pictures of models on their displays, choosing to showcase only their devices.
Furthermore, all convenience stores display warning signs that say the products are not to be sold to minors (18 and below), but whether those signs are visible to minors or not is a separate issue.
Expanding Nicotine Menu: Vape Enters Independent Convenience Stores
While the major chains are, for now, content to stick to heated tobacco products, the landscape is slowly starting to shift with independent convenience stores.
In Puchong’s IOI Boulevard, a one-month-old independent convenience store has opted to sell a selection of nicotine vape products alongside regular cigarettes and heated tobacco products.
Posing as an interested consumer after having discovered that the health writer persona doesn’t generate much conversation, I browse through the products displayed behind the counter.
SP2S’s S Pro device and liquid, AKSO disposables (1,500 puffs), RELX’s Infinity Plus device in black and the corresponding refills, NanoPOD Neo in Kiwi Rockmelon (4,000 puffs), Voltbar disposables (10,000 puffs). These are only some of the wares lining the convenience store shelf.
The owner of the shop is an affable Chinese man who looks to be in his 40s. Although neither a smoker nor vaper himself, he is fairly knowledgeable about his products. However, any gaps in his knowledge can have severe impacts on new vapers who may not be aware of the intricacies of the vaping world.
Malaysia has a flourishing vape market, filled with an almost inexhaustible number of products of differing types, flavours, and nicotine levels.
While the simple convenience store does not carry the more sophisticated Vape Mod devices — distinguishable by their cubic shape and cylindrical mouthpiece that make the devices resemble squat walkie-talkies — it does carry the beginner-friendly and extremely popular pod systems and disposables.
The pod systems are often compact and discreet, resembling a slim ruler, and are user-oriented: they are easy to use and have a long battery life.
There are two types of pod systems: open and closed.
Integral to both systems is the pod. The pod is often the hollow acrylic mouthpiece of the device that has a chamber to contain the e-liquid and coil, the component that creates the vapour.
All the vaper needs to do is take the pod and slide it into the body of the device which houses the battery and a couple of magnets to secure the pod in place. The whole pod functions similarly to the Game Boy cartridges of the early 2000s, giving the device a plug-and-play feel.
In an open pod system, the vaper can refill the pod with their e-liquid of choice using a dropper, syringe, or nozzle. This allows the user to have control over the flavours and strength of nicotine they are vaping. And on top of the liquid customisation, the user can also change the coil to suit their preferences.
The coil, in addition to transforming the liquid into vapour, also plays a role in the airflow of the device, the nicotine hit, and the strength of the flavours (some coils allow the user to taste more of the flavour). Coil customisation, however, depends on the manufacturer of the device.
Although less messy and easier to maintain, the closed pod system offers less customisation. The pods in this system come pre-filled, and once finished, the vaper discards the pod and plugs in a fresh pod. This limits the liquid flavours and nicotine content to the company and model of the vape device.
For example, if I were to purchase SP2S’s SII Pro with the ironic tagline ‘Next Evolution in Breathing’, I would be restricted to SP2S SII Pro pods. Therefore, although the company produces a variety of different pods and flavours, I would not be able to avail myself of them as I’m locked into the SII Pro ecosystem.
This does not deter users from purchasing the closed system as most companies have more than enough flavours to keep users happy.
The issue, for both systems, is the nicotine levels.
In Malaysia, nicotine in e-liquids ranges from zero per cent to five per cent (0mg per ml to 50mg per ml) with the most common variants being three per cent for beginners and average users, and five per cent for cigarette converts, heavy vapers, and average users.
This means that the Malaysian vape market operates with nicotine levels that are illegal in countries such as Indonesia, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all of which have a maximum nicotine level of two per cent (20mg/ml).
Returning to the independent convenience store, as there are no labels stating the amount of nicotine present in products and the store owner is oblivious to the nicotine content in the products he is selling, there is a large possibility of the proprietor unwittingly starting off new vapers with products that contain a nicotine concentration of 50mg/ml.
But to characterise independent store owners as villains would be unfair, as from my interactions with this store owner and other storekeepers, it would appear that proprietors merely view vapes as yet another addition to the existing stock of cigarettes and heated tobacco products, and not something that they actively sell to customers.
This hints at a near future where Malaysians might see more and more stores choosing to add-on vape and e-liquids to their existing nicotine menu.
And while the danger of adolescents being further exposed to vape products in these easily accessible public spaces is present, the true danger for youths comes mainly from vape shops.
Vape Shops Expand Their Reach to New Vapers
Young women and men, who look to be in their early 20s, can be seen puffing away on a kaleidoscope of disposable vapes during my visits to vape stores: slim pens, highlighter look-alikes, and cola can dupes are among the seemingly inexhaustible options available. Four of the 10 vape stores I visited had a woman behind the counter — indicating the women-friendly nature of vape, unlike cigarettes.
The vape retailers see no issue pushing vape to as many new customers as possible, despite the industry publicly requesting for tighter regulations for vapes.
The owner — let’s call him Ahmad — of the vape shack in Kota Damansara is one such individual.
“For starters, I would suggest you go with something like this,” he says, pulling out a shimmering pink and purple gradient vape pen (clearly appealing to my female sensitivities). “So basically, after you purchase this, you can try any flavours here.
“There are two things that you need to buy. One is the device, secondly, is the flavours. The device is a one-time purchase, while the flavours are the one that you need to buy every time you finish, lah.
“So the flavour is the one that we consider as consumables. It’s the one that you will have to keep stocking up on. The devices, you buy them one time only, and then you just charge [using a type-C cable].”
The product in question that Ahmad is trying to get me to purchase is the Blitz Legendaa Series vape pen from SP2S which he is peddling for RM85, and the Legendaa series pods, for RM38. The total bill, if I were to have purchased the device and pods, would be RM123, an affordable sum for someone who has just entered the workforce.
Upon entering the shop, I told Ahmad that I had no idea what the different types of products are or how vaping even works. All I knew was that vaping helped relieve stress and was less harmful than cigarettes.
Ahmad takes my naivete at face value and jumps straight to making me as permanent of a customer as he can.
Choosing to sell me a closed pod vape pen as opposed to a much cheaper disposable vape; making me spend a considerable sum of money; and ensuring that I have the easiest and most versatile experience in terms of flavours, Ahmad would have secured another loyal customer that day with his easy charm and killer tactics if I had been someone who was sincerely interested in taking up the habit.
SP2S is one of the leading atomiser companies to come out of China’s technology capital, Shenzhen. Its products are amongst some of the easiest to use and most appealing on the market for both beginners and regular users who want a fuss-free, multi-flavoured vaping experience.
Ahmad tells me that the pods for the Blitz line of vape pens come in boxes of three, and a single pod which contains 2ml of e-liquid should last me a week thanks to my beginner status.
2ml of e-liquid is the average equivalent of a 600-puff disposable vape, and although I did not see many 600-puff disposable vapes in the shops I visited, the 700-puff variant is a common enough sight and would have only set me back RM15 to RM30 depending on the brand.
It would have been something that I could have easily thrown away and not looked back on after I satiated my curiosity or if I found the experience unpleasant.
But with the spending of RM123 and the physical device sitting around, a constant reminder of the money I spent, it is a more effective way to induce vaping. And if that were the case, I would have been vaping for a minimum of one month — assuming one box is all I buy.
“You can buy one device, and you can have multiple flavours. You can just plug the kepala (head),” says Ahmad.
The Cleveland Clinic website states that nicotine dependence can begin right away — even after one or two uses. Nicotine floods the brain’s reward circuits with dopamine, a feel-good chemical, that creates a pleasant feeling which, upon wearing off, leaves users wanting more. In addition to the highly addictive nature of nicotine, the use of nicotine can become a habit.
For example, if one smokes a cigarette every morning, over time, the act of smoking becomes a part of the morning routine like the way having a cup of coffee every morning becomes a habit.
Most vape liquid products I saw during my investigation have a clear label on the front of the box that reads, ‘WARNING: This product contains nicotine which is a highly addictive substance’, but for some, this label is not on the product packaging but on the display used to show the products. Some vape or e-cigarette products do not state the levels of nicotine content.
Wanting to see how honest Ahmad will be regarding the highly addictive nature of his products, I play dumb and ask him whether I will become addicted to vaping.
“It depends on the user, actually. It depends on how nice the flavour is. For me, it is only addictive if the flavour is really nice. So, for me, to find that very, very nice flavour is very hard,” says Ahmad as he stands between a shelf that is stocked full of various flavours and a long glass case filled with even more flavours, in his hand is a vape pen filled with a five per cent concentration of vape liquid in the flavour of his choice.
Despite the absurdity of the situation, Ahmad’s claim of flavours inducing the addiction might have a grain of truth in it, as many other vape shops and vape sellers attribute their addiction to the flavours that are available rather than to the nicotine content. However, it should be noted that many of these vapers come from a smoking background.
In an article titled The Role of Flavors in Vaping Initiation and Satisfaction Among U.S. Adults published in the Addictive Behaviours Journal, researchers found that 62.9 per cent of e-cigarette users in America used flavoured e-liquids and reported greater satisfaction and self-perceived addiction compared to users of non-flavoured e-cigarettes.
Compared with non-smokers, cigarette smokers are more likely to believe that e-cigarettes are less addictive than cigarettes.
Furthermore, the article states that young adults (ages 18 to 29) are more likely to cite flavours as a reason to use e-cigarettes. And it is also this same group which reported higher addictive qualities in e-cigarettes.
When I press Ahmad on nicotine, he says, “Could be [addictive] lah. Could be. Because originally, I started with cigarettes, so it comes with nicotine. Coming from a totally zero, I would say go for three per cent first, don’t go for five because otherwise, you would feel a bit lightheaded.”
In Malaysia, the Control of Tobacco Product (Amendment) Regulations 2013 stipulates that 1.0 mg is the maximum allowable nicotine level per cigarette. In a typical pack of 20 cigarettes that would be 20.0 mg per pack.
Ahmad’s three per cent nicotine is equivalent to 30mg/ml. And assuming that 30mg is in every ml of vape liquid, the Blitz pods that Ahmad is pushing would contain not 30mg of nicotine, but 60mg of nicotine per pod as each pod contains 2ml of e-liquid.
Therefore, if I have done the maths correctly, I — a complete novice who has not inhaled nicotine ever in my life — would be vaping 40mg more nicotine in one week than if I were to smoke a pack of cigarettes, assuming that both a vape pod and a pack of smokes lasts for that duration.
I am, at this point, about done with Ahmad’s cavalier attitude toward the serious health risks that come with vaping and take my final shot.
“I’ve got a bit of asthma, so this shouldn’t affect it, right?” I ask.
“Ah, okay, you try first. If there are any signs of problems, you can just discontinue it. That is what we would usually suggest. But usually, most people are okay. Usually, lah. The one or two are one or two out of a thousand. If you say one out of a thousand, yes; if you say one out of ten, no,” says Ahmad who is still bent on selling me the vape pen and pod versus the marginally safer disposable.
The Allergy and Asthma Network, citing a recent study, states that the long-term use of e-cigarettes increases the risk of respiratory diseases which includes asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic bronchitis. The data also shows the risk of developing a lung or respiratory disease is significantly linked to e-cigarette use.
Leaving Ahmad’s store behind, I walk into another vape shop that is 10 minutes away from Ahmad’s. And they have a different gimmick for beginners.
This shop, unlike the well-lit interiors of most vape shops, is illuminated only by beams of blue neon lights lined against the fringes of the shop. Behind the counter are three young Malay men, none of whom look to be even close to thirty.
The boy behind this counter does not try to start me off with the whole device but chooses to take a slightly more cautious approach and sell me a “disposable” vape.
“Disposable” because the Elf Bar Lowit is a hybrid device that magnetically attaches a pre-filled disposable 5,500-puff vape pod to a rechargeable battery. This means that once the vaper has emptied the pod, they can dispose of the empty pod, keep the battery, and attach a new pod, presumably another one of the 13 over available flavours, to the battery housing.
The Chinese-owned company markets this particular device to beginners as a ‘Prefilled Pod Starter Kit’ that satisfies “your craving both in the mouth and on the hand”.
Malaysian vape reviewer Adrian Lo Dejavu (as per his YouTube name) describes the Lowit as “new technology”, stating that the Lowit functions as both a fashionable item and a fidget toy on top of being a vape. Thus, the on-hand satisfaction, I presume.
The boy behind the counter tells me that this will be a good option for beginners and that the 5,500 puffs (14ml) should last me a week because I’m new! When I ask him what the nicotine content is, he tells me that it is 3.5 per cent.
However, the nicotine content he quoted does not line up with that of other vape shops and Elf Bar’s website which state that the product contains five per cent (50mg) of nicotine.
This discrepancy of how long new non-smoker users would take to finish vape products and how much nicotine is present in products is a commonality in the industry.
Many of the shops I visit quote different finishing times and nicotine content for the same products (most of them being 5,000-puff disposables). And as I have no way of verifying the nicotine content, as most vape companies do not list the nicotine content on the product packaging or website — I have no choice but to trust the salesperson.
Thus, with the advance in technology and the slight change in labelling, new users could be fooled into purchasing products that would ensure that they get addicted for life.
While the blend of vicious tactics and ill-informed staff poses plenty of risks, there is yet another danger in the vape industry — genuine health misinformation by somewhat well-meaning staff.
Taking my quest next door to the vape hub of SS15, I find myself face-to-face with a Malay man who has a rather confusing disposition that is mainly created by him teetering between his desire to sell me his products and his ethical stance.
For the purpose of the article, we will call him Hafiz.
“The addiction is there,” says Hafiz, after recommending I start out with an 800-puff disposable. “Memang ada (definitely got). In the beginning, you don’t feel it as much, the addiction, but after vaping for a long time you will definitely become addicted.
“It will change and change like your taste changes,” he says, referring to a combination of the flavours and nicotine. “But all these definitely have nicotine, only there are low and high [nicotine levels]. Like this is five per cent. The rest are 3.5 per cent. So, there is nicotine, but not a lot.
“But for a beginner, you don’t feel the addiction as much. So, like if you are bored, you will smoke. If you are a beginner, you can try this. This dispo (disposable) masa first yang paling first dia keluar (when you first start, it is the first one that comes out). It is 800 puffs you can vape, once the battery is finished, throw it away. Then there is one like this, if the battery is finished, charge it and once you finish, throw it.”
Disposable vapes typically are an all-in-one unit that comes pre-filled with e-liquid and pre-charged, so you can start vaping right out of the box.
Traditionally, these devices could not be recharged, but today most disposables come equipped with a type-C charging port. This does not mean that you can refill the unit or detach the battery. The reason why there is a charging port is so that you can get the most out of one device.
According to sellers, due to the battery running out before the liquid is depleted, there would still be e-liquid left in the device when the vaper throws it away. But now with the addition of a charging port, vapers can charge it and use it till they taste the “burn”. From what I understand, when the e-liquid runs out, the vapour will taste or smell burnt, and this means that it is time to top up the device.
Sensing my apprehension about the addictive nature of the device, Hafiz is quick to say, “Not everyone will become addicted. It’s how you vape as well. How you vape, whether it is quick or not, relaxed or flustered,” he says. “It’s like drinking coconut water, relak, santai [then you won’t get addicted so quickly].”
Despite saying the above and showing me his vape tester stand — what looks to be a repurposed rectangular makeup brush stand — filled with vapes for beginners to try before they make a purchase, it does not take him long to once again speak about the addictive effects of vape.
“Dispo vapes, the longer you use them, the more comfortable you will get. In the beginning, you might not find it enjoyable, feel tak syok. But as time passes, you will definitely look for it. That is how addiction works. Once you start vaping, you will keep wanting more.”
As he appears relatively honest and hesitant to show me his vape mods and vape pod devices, I ask him about the effects of second-hand vapour, telling him I have a younger sibling at home and that I’m worried about her health if I were to take up vaping.
“It is only sweet. There are no effects. The smell is also nice. When you vape, it smells sweet, and there is no threat. [It is safe]. No effects.”
According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation (ANRF), secondhand aerosol from electronic smoking devices contains nicotine, ultrafine particles and low levels of toxins that are known to cause cancer.
Exposure to fine and ultrafine particles may exacerbate respiratory ailments like asthma, and constrict arteries which could trigger a heart attack.
We Don’t Sell Vape To Non-Smokers: Brixs Vape Puchong Jaya
Of the 10 vape shops CodeBlue visited, only two discouraged me from smoking and vaping and ingesting nicotine in general, and out of the two, only one did not want to sell me any devices whatsoever.
Brixs Vape, specifically the one in Puchong Jaya, refuses to sell me any vape items. The first thing the staff here does when I enter the shop and tell them that I wanted to take up the habit is to ask whether I have smoked before.
When I answer in the negative, they push my case to a senior member of the staff, a Malay man whom we shall call Bob.
“You smoke cigarettes or not?” asks Bob, after hearing my story of stress and wanting to cure that with vape.
“No,” I reply.
“Don’t smoke. For me, if you smoke, I’ll let you vape. If you don’t smoke and you are stressed, go have coffee, hang out with friends, or find a boyfriend! Lagi better, okay. You will get addicted to nicotine, just like cigarettes. Even though it’s vaping, don’t do it. You will get addicted to nicotine, and in the end, you will waste your money.
“Save your money. Pergi shopping, go on vacation, lagi best lah (that’s much better). A vape unit, like a disposable, costs RM40. Even RM20, how long can it (the device) last? Only three days at most.
“For me, if you are stressed, there are many ways to deal with it. Don’t turn to vaping if you don’t smoke. That is my advice.
“Once you start, it is hard to quit. You become addicted. It’s the same as cigarettes. It’s the nicotine that is the same as cigarettes, only the way you consume it differs, through flavours instead of burning. But it’s all nicotine, whether it’s low or high concentration.
“The hardest part to quit is the nicotine addiction.
“For example, I like coffee, I cannot stop drinking coffee. If I stop, hidup I fail for today (my day feels like a failure); the same with nicotine. If I don’t take nicotine, hidup I fail.
“The effects of nicotine withdrawal is that it will be hard to fall asleep. You will feel anxiety,” says Bob, explaining the symptoms of a day without nicotine. “Take that money and go on a vacation!”
Bob essentially gave me a pep-talk on why I should never take up the habit of vaping if I have not smoked cigarettes before.
While there are people like Bob who are true adherents of the harm reduction argument that is often used by the vape industry as a smokescreen to push their goods, there are many more shops out there which at best, want to make a quick sale, and at worst, sentence a whole new generation to a lifetime of addiction so that they can line their pockets with cash.
Most of the vape stores I saw in my investigation, who were trying to push their products to me as a non-smoker, contradict the industry’s claims that vape is marketed as a harm reduction tool for hardcore smokers trying to quit.
In a cruel twist of irony, the government — specifically the Ministry of Health (MOH) itself, after Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa gazetted an order to deregulate liquid nicotine last March 31 — has legalised the sale of e-cigarettes and vape with nicotine for tax revenue. There are currently no restrictions on vape or e-cigarettes whatsoever, including on the packaging and array of flavours that are clearly targeted at young people, or even restrictions on the sale of such nicotine products to minors aged below 18.
MOH’s own highlight survey, the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2022, found that the prevalence of current e-cigarette or vape users among teenagers aged 13 to 17 years in Malaysia increased from 9.8 per cent in 2017 to 14.9 per cent last year. Nearly a quarter (23.3 per cent) of male adolescents in that age group vape, as well as 6.2 per cent of female teenagers.
Despite Cabinet approval of the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023 last Friday, passage of the bill that is expected to be tabled next week in the Dewan Rakyat is not guaranteed. Many MPs from the 14th Parliament had opposed the controversial generational end game (GEG) provisions in the previous iteration of the bill that ban tobacco and vape products for anyone born from 2007.
Dr Zaliha has been curiously muted about her own bill. The last time that Dr Zaliha’s Twitter account mentioned the GEG was last February 24. She has not mentioned the recent Cabinet approval of the tobacco bill, nor held any press conferences on the landmark bill that, if approved by Parliament, would be Malaysia’s first ever tobacco control Act.
Senior MOH officials participated in a GEG awareness run event yesterday organised by civil society. Both Dr Zaliha and Deputy Health Minister Lukanisman Awang Sauni were absent from the event that was attended instead by former Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who had proposed the GEG last year but failed to get the tobacco bill passed before the dissolution of the 14th Parliament.
Source: Code Blue