Harm Reductionists Wary on New Philippines Vape Regulations

June 21, 2024

New regulations in the Philippines require all vaping products to be registered with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Having opted in recent years for regulation, rather than prohibition, the country has relatively progressive vape laws compared to many other examples in Asia—and compared to its own brutal drug war. But local harm reduction advocates have mixed feelings about the new rules and their possible impacts, as they seek reliable long-term access to nicotine vapes.

Almost 120,000 people die of smoking-related diseases each year in the Philippines, and the smoking rate among men—projected to stand at 34 percent by 2025—is very high. So vapes, which are far safer than the cigarettes they can replace, could have an enormous impact here if allowed to do so.

One estimate put the number of people vaping in the Philippines at 1.6 million in 2021, with 14.4 million smoking. But as in the United States and elsewhere, there have been loud concerns over a supposed youth vaping “epidemic”—with some “health experts” claiming vapes may be riskier than cigarettes and citing “EVALI” (the US outbreak that was not caused by nicotine vapes).

“Importation and manufacturing of vaporized nicotine and non-nicotine products must now undergo the DTI certification process,” said DTI Undersecretary Amanda Nograles of the new regulations. Retailers will be permitted to sell off existing stock during a transition period, but “On January 5, 2025, we will do market clearing,”  

Products will have to bear the Philippine Standard mark and Import Commodity Clearance label (when applicable) before they can be placed on shelves. Manufacturers have been urged to start the certification process immediately, as it’s expected to be time-consuming.

Clarisse Virgino is a tobacco harm reduction (THR) advocate living in Marikina City, in the Manila metropolitan area. She switched from cigarettes to vapes herself a decade ago, and now represents the Philippines for the Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (CAPHRA), supporting the rights of adult nicotine consumers to access safer products.

Overall, Virgino admitted she’s “torn” on where she stands with the new regulations.

“From a consumer standpoint, I have been advocating for regulating THR products and vapes, instead of an outright ban,” Virgino told Filter. Unregulated products without consumer protections, she said, are “personally something that made me hesitate when buying from vape shops before—I remember asking the store clerk if the products were safe.”

“The certification will protect customers from fake products that might be a risk to them,” Virgino said. But another question entirely is the nature of enforcement and its impacts.

Virgino said that the DTI has “seized thousands of illegal vape products due to non-compliance with the law, licensing issues and illegally imported vape products.” She said shops had been closed and licenses suspended, even in advance of the promised “market clearing.”

This could significantly reduce access points to vapes. And what about people’s safety, if they encounter law enforcement for these reasons?

Overall, Virgino admitted she’s “torn” on where she stands with the new regulations.

Anton Israel, founder of the Nicotine Consumption Union of the Philippines, is similarly conflicted. The country’s nicotine consumers, he told Filter, are generally “positive” about the new rules. People welcome the prospect of buying vapes in the knowledge that they “now possess some hallmark of assured quality compared to the days when the vaping trade environment was unregulated.”

But one area that makes him wary is tax. In addition to the new certification process, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) will be placing a tax stamp on vaping products, aiming to increase tax collection. According to the BIR, an increase in cigarette smuggling saw the Philippines lose over P25 billion (over $400 million) in revenues in 2023.

Anton Israel fears a future in which “smoking will emerge as [the] preferred source of nicotine for today’s vapers.”

The impact of new taxes, or newly enforced taxation, on people who vape remains to be seen, Israel said. Prices might become too steep for ordinary people to afford, and if so, “they might resort back to smoking or seek cheaper (uncertified/smuggled) alternatives.” He fears a future in which “smoking will emerge as [the] preferred source of nicotine for today’s vapers.”

Another potential downside of the new system will sound familiar to observers of the US attempt to regulate vapes. Many smaller manufacturers and retailers might choose not to undergo, or find it impossible to undergo, a long and onerous regulatory process. That could result in limited legally available products and shuttered vape shops, greatly hampering harm reduction.

“It’s the worst-case scenario,” Virgino said of this possibility. “Logically speaking, if one switched from cigarettes to vapes, and all of a sudden, the latter becomes unavailable, that person might get the urge to return to cigarettes instead, since they’re widely accessible in most stores in the Philippines.”

Virgino’s local vape shop recently advised her to stock up on her favorite e-liquid, as they’re unsure if they’ll be able to keep stocking it. “I’m all for regulating vapes as well as liquids,” she said, “but when regulations start to feel prohibitive, that’s where I draw the line.”

Yet Virgino is conscious that avoiding outright prohibition puts the Philippines ahead of many countries in the region on this particular issue, and that informs her glass-half-full attitude.

“I remain hopeful,” she said, “that the Philippines will continue on providing accessibility of vape products, while still keeping these products in check, to protect vapers as well.”



Photograph of Dasmariñas City by Philippine News Agency via Picryl/Public Domain

Kiran Sidhu

Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales. Kiran's fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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