Malaysian businessman Alvin* has scaled back his e-cigarette import business over the past couple of months. Not because it’s illegal – Alvin has known that for a long time – but because the bribes requested by Phnom Penh’s Central Post Office keep going up, he claims**.
“They try all kinds of ways to get some money out of you,” he said on the phone last week. “They got more and more greedy – $20 to $30 one time and $40 to $50 the next. I decided it was too much for me.”
Now Alvin imports his contraband cargo in suitcases when he travels back from Malaysia, and sells it off via Facebook to customers around Phnom Penh. And business is so good he often has to turn customers down. “Slowly people are switching to e-cigarettes,” he reports cheerfully.
This Friday will mark two years since Cambodia became one of 25 countries to ban the sale of e-cigarettes, also known as vapes. The battery-operated devices are designed to simulate the effects of smoking and deliver a hit of nicotine without tobacco, and have become extremely popular the world over, with global sales exceeding $6 billion last year.
Studies suggest that vaping is less harmful than smoking – with one paper published by Public Health England claiming vapes are “95 per cent less harmful” – but factors including a lack of research into long-term effects have made health authorities hesitant to endorse the technology.
When Cambodia’s ban was introduced, Prime Minister Hun Sen requested “urgent and firm action” on the illegal sales. But suppliers contacted by Post Weekend this week said that aside from occasional bribe payments, importing their illicit cargo remained straightforward.
Bros Hout, a 24-year-old who sells vapes starting from $110 via a Facebook page, said he used DHL shipping to import them from the US and Malaysia because it could manage international deliveries in less than a week. Hout wasn’t convinced that what he was doing was illegal. “E-cigarettes and vapes are different because e-cigarettes contain nicotine,” he said.
“When my customers ask to buy vapes with nicotine, I tell them that I cannot import it.”
Alvin wasn’t sure what exactly the government had banned. “They didn’t disclose this. They just say it is banned, but they never said what type of e-liquid is banned or not,” he said. “Even the regulation itself is not really clear. I’m not really sure to what extent they enforce this ban.”
Saran Komsot, a spokesman for the National Police, said the police would act if they had information about the sale or use of e-cigarettes. "I have asked my technical team about sisha or e-cigarette online selling but we don’t find any websites selling these things yet."
While uncertainty and lax enforcement prevail, entrepreneurs are spotting good opportunities to profit from the black market trade.
A Cambodian-American who lives in Phnom Penh and goes by the name "Chally" had been in the process of franchising a US-based vaping business when the ban came into force.
He said that while he had been forced to abandon that business venture (“opening up a shop, that would not fly”), he was currently in the process of learning how to make his own e-liquid, using ingredients from local pharmacies.
“I want to make it a legitimate business and brand it – this is good-quality juice, not something you buy in bulk from China,” he said, adding that he had already conducted successful experiments making his own blends.
Chally was confident that, despite the ban, he was getting in on a growing local market. “Before, it was mainly foreigners and expats who were already knowledgeable about what vapes are [who vaped]. Now the locals are catching on to the trend and picking it up,” he said.
According to 2014 data from the World Health Organisation, more than 40 per cent of Cambodian men are daily smokers, with 9,000 Cambodians a year dying of smoking-related illnesses.
At present, Cambodia doesn’t have strong legislation in place aimed at helping the country to kick the habit. A long-awaited law banning smoking in bars and restaurants has yet to be passed, and the country has the second-lowest tax on cigarettes in the ASEAN community as of 2014.
Chheach Choraphea, director of the National Centre for Health Promotion within the Ministry of Health, said that the ban on e-cigarettes was a consequence of uncertainty about what they contained.
“We’ve never experimented on e-cigarettes and we don’t know if they are better than cigarettes or not,” she said, adding: “We are not really sure about the problem, but we know that it contains nicotine, which causes bad health.”
Mom Kong, executive director of local NGO Cambodian Movement for Health, agreed that the government ban was necessary, saying that it was intended “to prevent it before it becomes really popular like smoking”.
Both Kong and Choraphea drew comparisons with shisha pipes when explaining the ban, with Choraphea suggesting that both provided opportunities for young people to take drugs.
Shisha – a tobacco mix smoked in a water pipe – was banned at the same time as e-cigarettes after it became popular in Phnom Penh, particularly with young, affluent Cambodians. It was seen not only as a distraction, but also as a potential front for drug use.
Unlike e-cigarettes, the government have been strict in enforcing its outlawing, including the arrest of 50 smokers following a bar raid in May last year.
Announcing the new law in 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan explained that “the general public sees that shisha and e-cigarettes are drugs, which get youths hooked and make them neglect their studies and work, and may lead to serious problems for the nation”.
The frequent conflation of the two very different products has prompted the suggestion that e-cigarettes were only ever banned because of the vapour’s visual resemblance to shisha.
“They say it’s a hookah on a stick, but it’s a whole different story,” said Chally with passion. “With a shisha, you’re still smoking that raw tobacco – you have smoke that’s still hitting your lungs. With e-cigarettes it’s just a liquid – oils and some flavour.”
With an increasing number of countries choosing to either regulate or ban the smoking of e-cigarettes, it seems unlikely that Cambodia will reverse its decision any time soon.
But distributors say they will carry on until the party is over. “I will stop, but at my own convenience,” said Alvin, who describes his sales as a “hobby”.
His only worry is that the government will change its mind before he’s ready. “In this country, whenever they want to enforce something, it can be overnight.”
Name changed to protect identity. Ork Bora, director general of Cambodia Post, said customs charged tax on some imported items but post office staff would never take bribes to allow the importation of illegal items.