The Ministry of Health has expressed concern over the widespread use of e-cigarettes and their impact on overall well-being, a sentiment echoed by local authorities who note the role of online advertising in this growing trend.

Among those affected is a 17-year-old named Sum Ra, identifiable by his long blonde hair and extensive tattoos. A product of divorced parents, Ra is the fifth of six siblings. 

Having not attended school, he lives with his father in Choeung Ek commune of Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district. 

Ra recounted beginning to smoke at 15, initially hiding the habit from his father. Despite having no job or personal income, his addiction escalated to the point where he was buying up to four packets of cigarettes a month.

“Originally, I was smoking regular cigarettes. My friends and I never thought we would become addicted. But now, I am so addicted that I cannot stop. I can’t afford cigarettes right now so I switched to e-cigarettes, which have a sweet taste. Before, my smoking was a secret but now my father is aware of my addiction to vapes,” he says.

The ministry has recently raised alarms regarding the use of e-cigarettes, shisa pipes and other heated tobacco products (HTPs), citing significant health risks associated with them. 

The National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) has prohibited the import, sale or use of the items. 

A hazard to society

A ministry press release dated February 4 emphasised the addictive nature of the devices and their negative impact on public health. It also pointed out the dangers of e-cigarette vapor, highlighting that users inhale hazardous substances, including nicotine and diacetyl – a chemical used for flavouring in foods like buttered popcorn, which can cause severe lung disease.

“Nicotine can be hazardous to unborn children. The substances that enter the lungs can cause cancer and hinder brain development,” it stated.

Ly Sivmey, a clerk from the capital’s Tuol Sangke I commune, believes that both e- and traditional cigarettes are detrimental to human health.

She mentions hearing opinions that vaping might reduce the use of normal cigarettes. However, she advocates for a ban on imports, noting that she often sees youths, not in school uniforms, gathering to smoke them. 

“E-cigarettes are not like traditional ones. If they were smoking regular ones, the cigarettes would be burning and it’s difficult to hide a burning cigarette in your hands,” she explains. 

“But with vapes, they can be concealed in pockets and palms, making it difficult to notice. Yet, I often see young people using them, and when we do, we have our village security guards advise them not to,” she adds.

Ouk Chanthida, a third-year media and communications student, shares that the ‘vapers’ she spoke to used them as a substitute for rolled cigarettes. 

She says they believe that e-cigarettes could help them wean off regular ones, considering them a better option due to the variety of flavours and their appealing taste. 

“I have noticed that students frequently use vapes. I’ve even seen them bring vapes to the theatre, which made me uncomfortable. 

“As youth, we don’t want to see such acts. When they use them, I know it’s not good and it disappoints me about our society,” she says.

Stance of local community

Sao Chantha, principal of Chea Sim Prek Anchanh High School in Kandal province’s Mok Kampoul district, notes that the adverse effects of e-cigarettes on health have been previously advertised on junior and high school campuses. 

He says his school regularly educates students about the impacts of vapes as advised by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, and prohibits students from leaving the school during study hours. 

“Our school doesn’t have students who use e-cigarettes or traditional cigarettes. I can’t speak for other schools, but I believe they are similar to mine in monitoring and educating students. However, we haven’t seen them using [either one],” he added.

Tuot Roeun, Slaket commune chief in the provincial capital of Battambang province, says the town has issued warnings to youths about the dangers of vape use, disseminating information on their health impacts. 

He says local administrations have reached a consensus not to allow students to use e-cigarettes. If students are found using them, they will be told about the health implications. 

“We don’t support the use of e-cigarettes, nor do we support regular cigarettes. In my commune, there were youths who used to smoke them, but not anymore, as we have taught them about their effects on health,” he says.

Efforts to curb sales

Meas Vyrith, secretary-general of the NACD, tells The Post that the committee has directed the police to enforce the ban on vapes. However, he says this does not imply that sellers will be arrested. 

“We don’t detain them, but we have banned them from conducting this business. If they continue, we have to confiscate the products, including those that are imported,” he explains.

Mom Kong, executive director of the NGO Cambodia Movement for Health (CMH), says e-cigarettes are deliberately designed to attract young people. 

He says that despite the government’s long-standing ban, there has been an increase in their use among youths due to aggressive online marketing on social media platforms. 

He cites his organisation’s study that reveals most vapers are under the age of 29, with about 85 per cent being students.

Kong explains that although police are instructed to advise smokers, monitoring the large number of users is challenging. 

He says the NGO has collaborated with the education ministry to spread awareness on several occasions. 

“Even though smoking on school campuses has decreased significantly, students continue to smoke off-campus, such as at coffee shops, public gardens and streets, because it’s easy for them to order online. Therefore, if there are no sellers, I believe the number of buyers will decrease, and the enforcement against e-cigarette importation must be intensified,” he adds.