There are many do-gooders in Hong Kong who will not welcome the suggestion that the government’s plans to curb e-cigarettes are plain stupid and, by the way, the proposed law on e-cigarettes is fundamentally wrong in principle.

Let’s start with the lack of logic in a proposed law that bans the sales and importation of vaping products but does not ban their use. Yes, that’s what is seriously being proposed. Vapers can freely smoke e-cigarettes but cannot buy them.. go figure.

alternative smoking products
Alternative smoking products. File

When nonsensical legislation is introduced it almost aggressively invites law breaking and as night follows day it is clear that this law will not eradicate e-smoking; it will criminalise an activity that is perfectly legal in most parts of the world.

More pressing is the contradiction revealed by the government’s admission that smoking tobacco products has higher proven health risks than vaping products. Yet there is no plan to ban tobacco. Moreover, despite official assurances to the contrary, there is considerable disagreement over the harmful effects of vaping but no such doubts exist over the question of whether tobacco products are harmful.

Nonetheless, the government’s health busybodies chose not to look at research which does not fit their intentions. Instead of even discussing the science they have advanced the dubious rationale that banning e-cigarettes is better than banning tobacco on the grounds that smoking tobacco is better established.

This is a bit like saying that because murder has a very long tradition in Hong Kong it is too difficult to ban but there should be higher penalties for cyber-crimes because they are newer and less well established. Obviously, this is an extreme comparison but the same barmy logic is at work here.

The other paper thin rationale advanced for an e-cigarette ban is that these products appeal to vulnerable young people and encourage them to take up the smoking habit. Do these idiots not understand that once they have banned something it becomes even more attractive to many young people?

Even if this does not happen what about the high likelihood that young people, unable to get hold of e-cigarettes, will go straight for the tobacco option? The same possibility exists for former tobacco smokers who moved over to e-cigarettes and will now be given every incentive to move back.

Then there is the more fundamental problem of do-gooders who think that the nanny state should do its best to regulate the behaviour of its citizens. Once you go down that road there is no end in sight.

Logically, if the interests of public health are to be enshrined in law there should surely be a mandatory period of minimum physical exercise for citizens who suffer a wide variety of ailments due to a lack of physical activity.

Then there’s the matter of the fried and, worse, deep-fried food epidemic which starts with very small children and spreads like wildfire as they get older and munch away on burgers, chips etc. As for monosodium glutamate, which is added with relish to many Chinese dishes, well, why on earth has that not been banned?

In other words, it is easy to identify a very big range of risks to public health which could be subject to regulation on health grounds but are not either because political pressure is too great or the interests of big business are at stake.

A shop selling e-cigarettes and other alternative smoking products. File

The major principle at stake here, however, is that people need to be allowed to take personal responsibilities for risks to their own health be it by engaging in extreme sports, eating unhealthily, drinking too much or indeed when it comes to smoking.

The principle of personal responsibility is no small thing and should not be casually tossed aside in a self-righteous scramble to be seen to be doing good. That does not mean that governments do not have any responsibility for alerting citizens to health risks. Unfortunately, however, Hong Kong’s public health campaigns tend to be farcical and are more likely to become the subject of jokes than anything else.

The problem with all this is that few politicians are courageous enough to stand up against do-gooding regardless of how ill-conceived it is.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship