Malaysian Authorities Have Been Raiding Vape Shops

The industry has exploded in the country in recent years, but the government has been cracking down.

Kaleigh Rogers

Kaleigh Rogers

Promoters smoking electronic cigarettes during the Vape Fair in Kuala Lumpur, December 5, 2015.Image: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

In Malaysia, there's currently a lot of drama swirling around a fast-growing craze. Health officials are busting down the doors of shops and raiding shelves. Dealers are hawking goods out of the trunks of cars in parking lots. Religious bodies are declaring a moral scourge. What is this plight that has descended on the southeast Asian nation? Vaping.

"The vaping market emerged about four years ago, but it really only became popular about one or two years ago," Jeremy Ong, the 25-year-old co-founder of Vape Club MY, a vaping subscription box service based in Kuala Lumpur, told me via Skype. "In the past year, retail stores started popping up like mushrooms."

The market has been growing steadily, and many Malaysian vaping groups say it's the second-largest market in the world, after the US, though there is some dispute over that claim. With somewhere between 400,000 and 1.25 million vapers in a country with a population of fewer than 30 million, it's a sizeable market regardless. (By comparison, about 10 percent of Americans vape.)

But the industry is experiencing a major shift, after officials started to crack down on the emerging market last fall. It began with talks of banning vaping full stop during an October parliament meeting. Then the Health Ministry announced vaping technically fell under regulations for other tobacco products, making it illegal to vape anywhere you can't smoke, and ministry officials began raiding shops and confiscating goods.

In December, Malaysia's National Fatwa Council deemed e-cigarettes to be haram (forbidden) for Muslims, who make up more than 60 percent of the population. Though this ruling is technically just a suggestion (cigarettes, which are also haram, are widely smoked by men in the country) some individual municipal and state governments have stopped issuing retail licenses for vape shops, and even banned the use of e-cigarettes for Muslims. These actions are pushing some vendors to set up shop from the trunk of their cars and is leaving a confusing patchwork of regulation around the country. But, like the US, there's still no clear federal regulation on vaping and the whole market is currently hanging in a legal limbo, with a noticeable hit to business.

"In the beginning, business was good—up until the parliament talks," said Ong, who started Vape Club MY in September of last year with his business partner, 28-year-old Jeanette Goon. "After that, the media painted a really negative image about vaping so our local sales slumped. But this pushed us to explore international markets and we found that Malaysian flavors are pretty sought-after overseas."

Malaysia's culinary culture has helped spur the development of e-liquid flavors that can't be found anywhere else, like vapor versions of local sweets such as cendol: a concoction of rice flour, coconut sugar, coconut milk, and kidney beans.

More clear and definite regulations are expected from the Malaysian government later this year, which will determine the future of vaping business in the country. The industry is advocating for the government to consider vaping's smoking cessation benefits, but that's pushing regulators to consider treating vaping more like a medicine, which could relegate the industry to only clinical, cig-a-like models (vape pens that resemble cigarettes and aren't customizable) stocked on pharmacy shelves, Ong said.

"If that were to happen, the entire vape scene as we know it would actually shut down," Ong said.

Though the industry is facing much of the same challenges as the US market, it has its own unique challenges as a conservative, largely Muslim country. Given how prevalent smoking is in Malaysia, vaping could indeed be an industry that falls in line with conservative health ideals to help Malaysians quit their biggest vice. But in an effort to attract young, modern customers, the industry has taken up some tactics that raise eyebrows for conservative older crowds, Ong told me.

"Vaping exhibitions have grown to be quite popular in Malaysia. Our US vendors tell us the exhibitions are a lot livelier here: they look like parties instead of business events," Ong said. "Being a conservative Muslim country, this doesn't reflect the industry well. Last weekend, there was an exhibition and brands were so competitive that some booths were offering free kisses if you buy three bottles of e-liquid. The ladies involved were Muslim, so I get where [these concerns] are coming from."