Will Thailand Soon Overturn One of the World’s Harshest Vape Bans?

April 24, 2023

Thailand’s general elections on May 14 might just bring about the end of the country’s draconian vape policies. Merely possessing a nicotine vape can currently get your item confiscated, land you with a big fine or even send you to prison for up to five years. Severe penalties and corrupt enforcement have seen Thailand branded the world’s worst country to be a person who vapes. But Thai tobacco harm reduction activists are hopeful that things will soon change.

Possessing, selling or importing vapes has been banned in the kingdom since 2014. And its punitive laws have fostered police extortion. After one incident this year, amid a crackdown in the capital of Bangkok, six cops were charged with forcing a group of tourists to pay a bribe of 27,000 baht (about $800) in order not to be detained for vape possession.

Meanwhile, over 81,000 people die annually of smoking-related illnesses in Thailand—when in countries with legal access to vapes, which are far less harmful than cigarettes, millions have switched.

Lifting the ban could put Thailand more in line with the Philippines, for example, which legally regulated vaping products last year.

Thanakamanusorn recently confirmed that decriminalization would be part of PPRP’s platform in the upcoming elections.

Such a move has featured in Thailand’s recent political discourse. In 2021 Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn, minister of digital economy and society, expressed support for legalization despite loud opposition from anti-vaping campaigners.

The minister, who is deputy leader of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which leads the governing coalition, said vaping would be a safer choice for around 10 million people who smoke in Thailand. He added that Thai tobacco growers and the Tobacco Authority of Thailand (TOAT), controlled by the Ministry of Finance, would benefit from the chance to produce vaping products for export.

Thanakamanusorn recently confirmed that decriminalization would be part of PPRP’s platform in the upcoming elections.

Counter to this, Anutin Charnvirakul, deputy prime minister and minister for public health—and the leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, a coalition member—has continually reiterated the government’s position: that vapes pose health risks and encourage more people to smoke, and that the ban must stay.

Asa Saligupta, director of End Cigarette Smoking Thailand (ECST), told Filter that this stance is still supported by powerful interests.

“In Thailand there are many anti-vaping and anti-smoking groups which are in support of the ban,” he said. “They are powerful and well-funded.”

The funds often come from overseas. Bloomberg Philanthropies, the funding vehicle of American anti-vaping billionaire Michael Bloomberg, supports some organizations that work in Thailand, for example.

Saligupta’s organization, ECST, is made up of people who vape and advocate for legalization and tobacco harm reduction. “We are nongovernmental and organic—meaning we have no funding,” he said.

“I’m being hopeful that finally Thailand will embrace the benefits of e-cigarettes. We have seen good signs.”

The misperception that “vaping is more harmful than smoking” remains widespread in Thailand, he added.

Nonetheless, “I’m being hopeful that finally Thailand will embrace the benefits of e-cigarettes and come to the realization that the majority of other countries allow e-cigarette use, import and sales,” Saligupta said. “We have seen good signs.”

Besides Thanakamanusorn’s intervention, he cited TOAT’s “looking into the economic opportunities e-cigarettes can bring,” and the fact that “just recently, Move Forward Party, one of the most popular and prominent parties, has also announced legalization as one of their election campaign policies.”

Asked if Thailand’s laws, which also ban selling or importing heated tobacco products, have stopped everyone from practicing tobacco harm reduction, Saligupta replied, “Absolutely not!”

“You walk on the street in the big cities like Bangkok,” he continued, “and you will see many people holding heated tobacco products or e-cigarettes. An economics professor, after doing some research, estimated the e-cigarette underground economy to be worth around 6 billion baht [$175 million].”

A national survey suggested that about 80,000 people currently vape in Thailand. But legalization would undoubtedly increase uptake among people who smoke, as well as protecting people from law enforcement. Saligupta described police using the vape ban to extort money as “very common.” And while news stories have focused on cases involving foreigners, “it’s a problem that is shared with the Thai people, too.”

Thailand has notoriously harsh drug laws in general, with punishments up to and including the death penalty. But the country legalized cultivation and possession of cannabis in 2022, having approved medical cannabis a few years earlier. Why have nicotine vapes remained illegal in that context?

“Cannabis is supported by the medical community who say that it has medical benefits,” Saligupta said, adding that cannabis legalization had “strong” political support. “While [with] e-cigarettes, although … a supporting tool for smokers who wish to quit, the so-called medical community still denied its medical benefits.”

But the May elections, if they go tobacco harm reductionists’ way, could transform one of the world’s most damaging examples of vape prohibition.



Photograph of police officer in Bangkok by Dickelbers via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

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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