Hong Kong residents who vape or use heated tobacco products (HTPs) will face a grim reality Saturday. That’s when a ban on sales and importation of vapes takes effect, and the vape market will instantly shift from legal to illegal.
Hong Kong authorities have already begun going after the smuggling operations that are certain to proliferate. The customs department issued a press release today bragging about the products it has seized: “about 2.63 million suspected illicit [heated tobacco products], about 190,000 suspected nicotine-containing electronic cigarettes and about 5,000 millilitres of suspected nicotine-containing electronic cigarette oil were seized with an estimated market value of about $15 million.”
Hong Kong passed the ban last October, after five years of trying. As of April 30, it will be illegal to sell, manufacture, import or promote vaping and heated tobacco products. Violators can earn hefty fines and up to six months in prison, although personal use and possession are not against the law. Cigarettes, of course, will remain perfectly legal, and many vapers and HTP users will return to smoking.
Like almost all vape bans, the one in Hong Kong was promoted by anti-tobacco groups and public health interests as a way to protect children. The powerful tobacco control advocacy group Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health (COSH) has demanded a complete ban on vaping product sales since 2018.
The city of Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. It only covers an area of 400 square miles, but has a population of 7.4 million. China, which took possession of the region from the UK in 1997, has moved in recent years to impose tighter restrictions on Hong Kong, shutting down newspapers and jailing protestors.
Hong Kong shares a border with Shenzhen, China—the huge manufacturing city where nearly all the vaping products sold around the world are made. With 11 land crossings between the huge cities, and trucks, trains and ships constantly passing back and forth between Hong Kong ports and Shenzhen factories, authorities will have to work overtime to put a dent in smuggling operations.
Hong Kong customs officials say they have already arrested 11 people on charges of smuggling vaping and heated tobacco products—a much more serious crime than sales or manufacturing the prohibited items. In Hong Kong, the crime of smuggling can be punished with up to seven years in prison.
Hong Kong retailers report that sales of vape products have surged in recent weeks, as desperate vapers try to stockpile products. But 90 percent of recently polled HTP users say they will return to smoking cigarettes after the ban takes effect.