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Malaysia’s billion-ringgit vaping empire — and the anti-smoking bill that could curtail it

KUALA LUMPUR: He started with a single shop selling vaping products in the Selangor town of Puchong in 2013.

These days, Zachary Oh’s company, Vape Empire, has 115 shops all over Malaysia, including in Borneo. It also manufactures and exports e-liquids to places such as Europe, South Korea, Australia and Japan.

Oh’s business has grown in tandem with Malaysia’s vape industry which is estimated to be worth RM2.7 billion (S$830 million), according to a 2021 study by the Malaysian Vape Chamber of Commerce. The country is reportedly one of the world’s largest e-liquid manufacturers.

“Vaping is the new smoking,” declared Oh, who told Talking Point that his Malaysian customers were largely under the age of 35. 

Two years ago, disposable e-cigarettes entered the picture, making vaping even simpler. “You just go over to the counter, buy, open the wrap and you can use,” he said.

At prices ranging from RM15 to RM38, disposables are also cheaper than traditional vapes, which can cost hundreds of ringgit per set, said sales executive Armand Kaser.

The e-liquids, or vape juices, come in an array of flavours including grape, mango, lychee and even crème brulee. 

In fact, Malaysians have become “quite well-known worldwide” as vape juice brewers, said Oh.

Industry lobbying is also “very strong” against efforts by policymakers to regulate their products, van der Eijk said. The tobacco or vape firms may argue for voluntary regulation where there are no penalties or enforcement, and low compliance, she added.

When Talking Point noted that teens said they were attracted to vaping by the array of enticing flavours, Oh responded: “The only way you can kick the habit of smoking is to find an alternative that you can stick on. If I’m going to vape another tobacco flavour, how do I stop smoking?”

He himself began vaping 10 years ago, and claims he managed to stop cigarette smoking seven years ago. 

“My consumption of vapes has reduced (by) at least five times now. I’m slowly cutting down,” he said, adding: “Maybe in two to three years’ time, I might even stop vaping totally.” 

Was this for health reasons, perhaps? “Definitely once you reach an older age, you tend to take care more of your health,” he said. “Things that you think (are) not good, you will try to stop it, you know.”

Watch this episode of Talking Point here. Watch the first episode on vaping among Singapore youths here.

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