China’s Decision to Regulate Vaping Products Has Global Implications

    China revealed on November 26 that it would officially regulate vaping products under its tobacco monopoly law.

    The decision has massive implications for tobacco harm reduction worldwide: China is both the largest tobacco market and the largest e-cigarette producer on Earth. The country previously imposed restrictions on vapes, and some observers feared a crackdown on the industry. Now, vaping has a legal status in China that should secure its future.

    In China, the government and the tobacco industry are, essentially, a single entity. The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration and China National Tobacco—operated by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and typically referred to as “China Tobacco” both regulates and manufactures tobacco products. With the exception of a handful of “premium” international brands, China Tobacco has a virtual monopoly over the entire tobacco market. 

    That all makes China the largest producer and consumer of tobacco on the planet, according to the World Health Organization. More than 300 million smokers reside in the country (27 percent of adults), which is about a third of the world’s smoking population. The country also makes about 90 percent of the world’s e-cigarettes, many of them in Shenzhen, a city north of Hong Kong that’s often described as the “vaping capital of the world.”

    While China Tobacco will now regulate vapes, they will still be produced by independent companies. ECigIntelligence, a company which provides regulatory advice to consumers, businesses and legislators, estimates that the domestic vapes market in China is already worth $1.3 billion, and that China exported nearly $8 billion worth of e-cigarettes in 2020 alone.

    Confirmation came as a relief to industry insiders and harm reduction proponents, many of whom had worried that the vaping industry could even be eliminated.

    The decision had been widely anticipated. In the summer of 2019, the Chinese government released an initial draft of potential e-cigarette standards, which included everything from battery compliance to e-liquid purity to testing methods. But later that year, as a bevy of misinformation and health concerns around teen vaping swirled in the United States, China prohibited the online sale of vaping products.

    Then, at the end of March this year, China signaled that it would soon officially put vaping products under the authority of China Tobacco. Confirmation of this came as a relief to industry insiders and harm reduction proponents, many of whom had worried that the vaping industry could even be eliminated.

    One of the biggest vaping companies in China, RLX Technology, stated on its official WeChat account that it “would heed the rules and make any required changes,” according to Reuters. SMOORE, another large China-based e-cigarette company, praised the news.

    “The legal recognition of e-cigarettes is a milestone for the Chinese vaping industry because it eliminates the uncertainty about the industry’s future,” Frankie Chen, the global PR manager for SMOORE, told Filter. “Considering China’s role in the global vaping supply chain, the national mandatory standards will significantly improve the product safety and provide global vapers with better products. Since the standards set higher requirements for vaping manufacturing, it is expected that only the responsible manufacturer with comprehensive safety management can be compliant.”

    Chen also highlighted some parts of the draft regulation, which was only available in Chinese: E-cigarettes should “use nicotine extracted from tobacco, and the nicotine purity should not be less than 99 percent”; the concentration of nicotine shouldn’t be higher than 20 mg/mL (the same limit prescribed by the European Union1,387.29s Tobacco Products Directive); and “e-cigarette devices and pods should be closed system[s] to prevent refilling [with] illegal substances.”

    The draft, Chen noted, “did not specify whether such standards [will also be] applied to exported vapes.” On December 2, China updated the draft standards yet again, requiring e-cigarette companies to obtain licenses for production.

    Chen also stated that the national mandatory standards will likely go into complete effect by May 2022.



    Photograph of China Tobacco offices in Urumqi by G Witteveen via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Alex is Filter’s news editor. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at VICE, and has been published in The New York Times MagazineThe Columbia Journalism Review, The Los Angeles Times and The New Republic, among other outlets. He was also previously a freelance editorial consultant for the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World; The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

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