The Vaping Dilemma: A Safer Alternative or a Growing Threat?

The video explores the rise of vaping as a popular alternative to smoking and the contrasting reactions from different countries. While some countries, like Malaysia and Indonesia, have let the vaping industry flourish with minimal regulations, others, such as Cambodia and Singapore, have outright banned e-cigarettes. The video exposes the darker side of vaping, including the emergence of a competitive vaping subculture and concerns about the unknown health risks associated with the various chemicals found in e-liquids. It also discusses the alarming increase in underage vaping and the growing black market for vaping products. Finally, the video delves into the illegal production and sale of narcotic vape liquids, highlighting the potential dangers and consequences of unregulated vaping.

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Key Insights:

  • Vaping has become a popular alternative to smoking, with the global market size reaching over $20 billion in 2019.
  • While some countries have embraced the vaping industry, others like Cambodia and Singapore have implemented outright bans on e-cigarettes.
  • In Indonesia, the vaping culture has developed into a vibrant subculture, complete with competitive vape tricking competitions and vape-specific establishments.
  • E-cigarettes were initially seen as a way for smokers to quit their addiction, as they do not produce smoke or contain tobacco. However, concerns have arisen regarding the lack of ingredient disclosure in e-liquids and the presence of harmful substances like nicotine.
  • The appeal of vaping lies in the wide variety of flavors available, but little is known about the long-term effects of inhaling these flavorings.
  • The vaping industry claims to focus on harm reduction rather than harm eradication, but there is evidence of a significant rise in youth vaping rates, with potential health risks.
  • The vaping lobby, consisting of companies and trade associations, actively funds research to influence public perception and regulations.
  • Governments are striving to regulate e-cigarettes to protect minors from addiction, but they face challenges from the vaping industry and an emerging black market.
  • In some cases, vaping has extended beyond nicotine and has been used to deliver illegal drugs like THC, posing even greater risks.
  • The popularity of vaping continues to increase, and the industry is projected to reach a market size of $182 billion by 2030.


Vaping, it’s the latest in what many believe to be the safer alternative to smoking. The tool to quit conventional cigarettes, and it’s gotten millions around the world hooked. A challenge, yeah.

The size of the global e-cigarette industry has grown from a million US dollars in 2005 to over 20 billion US dollars in 2019. Malaysia and Indonesia have seen fit to let the industry grow within their borders, relatively unfettered regulations. Yet, regional neighbors like Cambodia and Singapore have slapped outright bans on e-cigarettes. Even Thailand, which has legalized cannabis, has imposed possible jail time for vaping. Why are there such contrasting reactions? Are e-cigarettes the key to quit smoking, or is there more to vaping than meets the eye?

Somewhere in the cool mountain city of Bandung, a group of vapers are gathered. But not just any vapers, this is a team of competitive vape tricksters. The youngsters are happy to put in the hours because coming up with the most creative and impressive tricks comes with rich rewards, sponsored by the vape industry.


That’s over five times the average monthly salary in Indonesia. The team’s next big vape tricking competition is due in less than a month at one of Indonesia’s annual vape expos or trade shows.


150 kilometers away from Bandung, in the nation’s capital of Jakarta, others are also gearing up for the same vape expo. Technology is…

The first ever vape expo happened in 2017 when there were just over a million vapers in Indonesia. Today, that number has soared to 6.6 million. That’s 8% of the vaping population in the world. At vape events, Jessica is a bit of a celebrity. In trendy social media influencers like Jessica and the alluring novelty of vape tricking, vaping has now developed a whole culture of its own. But it didn’t start that way.

It began simply as a way for cigarette smokers to wean themselves off their addiction. The burning of tobacco in conventional cigarettes is what produces the two killer toxins of smoking, tar, and carbon monoxide. In contrast, vapes don’t contain tobacco and don’t produce smoke. Instead, they use an electronic heating method that only generates vapor, potentially rendering them less harmful. E-cigarettes started gaining popularity around 2014. Since then, thousands have managed to quit smoking thanks to vaping.


E-cigarettes seem like the ultimate public health panacea especially for a country like Indonesia, where over a third of adults smoke, one of the highest smoking rates in the world. Yet, around 2014, governments around the world started coming down hard on vaping, with some even going so far as to ban it. What is behind such drastic action against something that could very well be the be-all-end-all solution to the global tobacco crisis?

Indonesia is now home to 6.6 million vapers, and over the years, they’ve created a vibrant subculture around vaping. With vape expos, vape trick competitions, and even vape-specific food establishments or what is known as a vape café. A mainstay of such vape cafés and other vape shops is a counter or bar like this, where hundreds of colorful vapes line the shelves, and there is a team of staff ready to assist you with your vape order. There’s even a special name they go by, vaporistas, like a vape barista.

Liquids, devices, pods, and atomizers. If you’re not familiar with vaping, you can quickly get lost navigating the ever-evolving vaping vocabulary. But while e-cigarettes today come in all shapes and sizes, they all essentially work the same way. There is a battery component that powers a heating coil, which heats up a tank of flavored e-liquid and vaporizes it. The vapor is then inhaled by the user through a small mouthpiece.

The flavorings of the e-liquid are a huge factor in the appeal of e-cigarettes. For many vapers, it is the wide variety that first draws them in and one of the reasons that keeps them coming back for more.

Almost any food flavor you can think of is likely an e-liquid equivalent of it. But unlike food products, e-cigarettes are not required to disclose their ingredients. Some 16,000 flavors are available on the market, yet most of their labels remain vague. So, what exactly is inside vape e-liquid?

Undercover Asia sent five popular e-liquid flavors for testing: cola, grape, Bandung, caramel, and custard cream. We consulted experts about the results.

„So, something that was found in all these five e-liquids was nicotine. So, nicotine is an addictive substance that can be found in all cigarettes as well. Often, we think of nicotine as this innocuous substance that just causes addiction, but it causes so many more things than that. Nicotine actually narrows the blood vessels, which can cause cardiovascular disease. It has the metabolic effects, which can increase the risk of diabetes. And in terms of the lungs, our lungs are lined with tiny hairs that are called cilia, and these act as a barrier function for the lungs. So, nicotine actually damages these cells, and so your increased chances of exposing to infections and then, long-term, there’s chronic lung diseases, such as asthma and also cancers as well.“

With e-cigarettes containing nicotine, manufacturers pre-extract the nicotine from tobacco leaves in advance and then add it to e-liquids. The delivery of nicotine is faster compared to waiting for it to come out from the combustion of tobacco. But why add such a harmful substance to something promoted as a healthier alternative to cigarettes?

To investigate, Undercover Asia goes to Malaysia, a country that has emerged as one of the world’s biggest producers of e-liquids. We managed to speak to the largest vape manufacturer there.

„Since the beginning, our campaign is actually to stop smoking in seven days or money back guarantee. So, nicotine, one stick of cigarette contains 2.4 mg of nicotine. So, one pack of cigarette contains 48 mg of nicotine. So, for example, like this one, we have 2 ml. Let’s say they smoke two packs of cigarettes, it’s equals to one pod of this. So nicotine-wise, it’s the same.“

Daily e-liquids are available in various nicotine strengths, from zero nicotine up to 12 milligrams per milliliter or more. The goal for people who want to quit smoking is to eventually reach zero, but zero nicotine vapes are not exactly commonplace.

„One study in the U.S. found that they account for less than 1% of the market share. And even the biggest vape manufacturer in Malaysia doesn’t sell it.“

We don’t sell zero nicotine because if you sell the zero nicotine, you can’t quit smoking.

But nicotine isn’t the only concern when it comes to the ingredients in e-liquids. Undercover Asia’s testing detected two chemicals not listed on the ingredient label: vanillin and acetaldehyde.

„Acetaldehyde was found in all five products that were measured. That is a carcinogen, and it also can increase the addictiveness effects of the nicotine. Three of them out of the five products contain vanillin. Vanillin comes from the vanilla extract that is added on as a sweetener or as an additive for flavoring. These compounds are fine to be swallowed, but when we heat it up and inhale it, it actually is an irritant to the lungs.“

Because there are thousands and thousands of different e-liquids, we don’t really know what’s in them and what those compounds could cause in the body if they’re inhaled. We honestly just don’t know.

You see, they also quote the website of Public Health England. They come up with research in 2016. Vaping is 95% safer than smoking.

Cigarette industry.

But even as vape companies argue that they are focused on harm reduction rather than harm eradication, here’s the thing. Terry is 45 years old. According to a 2018 Indonesian public health survey, less than 1% of her age group vapes. The age groups that have the highest prevalence of vaping are all adolescents. Nearly 11% of those between 10 to 19 years old vape. The number is similar across other parts of the region, including in Malaysia, where youth vaping rates sit at 10%. That’s more than half a million underage vapers.

„Something as addictive as nicotine, you’re much, much more likely to become addicted to it early exposed to nicotine. Their lungs are even smaller and weaker. They don’t grow to the full capacity, and so their breathing and their regular lifestyle in doing what they want to do can be hampered without the proper amount of oxygen in their body.“

By these health effects, activist Envy Subarau has made it his mission to educate Malaysia’s youth on the dangers of vaping nicotine. He has interviewed more than a thousand primary and secondary school students to understand why they are drawn to vaping.

„Now, even minors, even children from the age of 7 to 12, primary education also addicted to this vape. Many of the students that we interviewed and asked them, ‚Will you touch cigarettes?‘ They say no because they hate the smell of tobacco. And this vape product doesn’t have any smell of tobacco, only on flavors, sweets, and chocolates, Mentos. The flavors only pull these children into becoming an addict into vape and e-cigarette.“

„We have a lot of overwhelming evidence that young people are going to these novelty flavors, you know, like boba tea, rainbow bubble gum. These are pretty much the young people. High rates of youth vaping have prompted several countries, including the US and Canada, to announce bans on flavored vapes. So, if smoking cessation is the stated aim, then why not sell non-flavored vapes?“

„You might have also noticed that vapes don’t look like cigarettes at all. Sleek, trendy, and colorful designs instead resemble highlighter pens or tech gadgets. And even this one product, a watch, nobody can say it’s a vape. So, they can easily escape from the parents.“

Because of the well-documented harmful effects of smoking, most countries restrict conventional cigarette advertising. Cigarette advertising in Indonesia is limited to billboards, print media, and certain hours on broadcast media. Malaysia has even stricter rules, as all forms of cigarette advertising are prohibited. But even as social media and attractive vape flavors draw young people in, vapes are not particularly affordable, especially for school students.

„For us, it’s important to target the 35 years old and above and not youngsters. So, how to do it? At the pricing. The pricing is not too cheap for the youngsters to access them.“

Nanostix sells rechargeable and refillable vape devices. A device with an accompanying flavor sells for around 100 Ringgit, or around 23 US dollars. That’s nearly two-thirds of the average daily wage in Malaysia. But other manufacturers also make disposable vapes. They have a limited number of puffs, but they are cheaper, selling for as little as 15 Ringgit, or just over 3 US dollars.

„So, the students who get about one to two US dollars a day for pocket money, the devices aren’t exactly out of reach.“

Corral has also observed that vape shops have come up with ingenious ways to co-opt students into their retail and marketing operation, by recruiting them to be vape peddlers.

„The vape is sold by the student in the class. They get their friend to buy the vape, and they get a discount from a particular shop, 30% to 40% discount.“

These practices targeting minors violate the vape industry’s own publicly proclaimed self-regulation regime.

To understand how effective the so-called self-regulation regime is, Undercover Asia sent a young person into six vape shops in Malaysia. Vape shops in Malaysia claim they do not sell to minors under 18. Yet, it is estimated that one in 10 youths in the country are actively vaping.

We went undercover in six vape shops in Kuala Lumpur to see if they would sell any of their products to someone who looks like a teenager.

„Hi, um, smoking, um…“

Of the six shops that Undercover Asia visited, none of them asked for ID, despite four of them displaying „18+ only“ signs.

But vape companies are saying that the age restrictions are self-enforced. It’s not a law, yeah.

But if current federal laws were to be strictly applied, the way vapes are being sold freely today would be illegal. That’s because in Malaysia, nicotine is a controlled poison. It can only be purchased legally from pharmacists and doctors. But there is one exception: tobacco products like cigarettes are exempted from the nicotine restriction and can be sold anywhere to anyone above 18 years old. These have become the rules that the vape industry claims to follow, whether unintentionally or by design. The inroads made by vapes in the youth market is making big tobacco sit up and take notice.

„Over the past 10 years plus, we’ve been seeing tobacco companies acquiring these independent e-cigarette companies and brands. The tobacco companies know that people are rejecting smoking. They just don’t want to smoke anymore. So they have to find a way to stay afloat.“

„So, with that comes a huge growth because obviously, the tobacco transnationals have a lot of resources to market their products to young people. And they have a long history of these tactics, so they know exactly what they’re doing.“

„With lifelong addiction and health risks associated with vaping by minors, and with big tobacco muscling in with their potential billions to market their own vapes, governments in the region are now scrambling to keep vapes out of the hands of minors, with some considering vaping bans.“

„We actually were involved last year when our former minister, Mr. Khairy Jamaluddin, proposed this idea, JENIFER. And G.A.M.E. We call it G.E.G. The GEG Act. Prevent individuals born in 2007 or later from ever legally purchasing smoking products, including vapes, even after they turn 18 in 2025. This might be the optimal solution that could help to reduce the smoking prevalence in a very concrete timeline that can see an end. That vaping and smoking will definitely reduce to less than 5% in 2045, which is one of our target goals.“

But governments, activists, and lawmakers face a formidable challenge: the vaping lobby.

„The vaping lobby consists of the companies that are selling vaping products, a lot of third parties and front groups like retailer associations or vaping manufacturers associations, trade associations, these kind of groups. This industry, yeah, they’re very active in funding researchers. They’ll publish some study which claims that e-cigarettes are safe or that they come with very minimal risks. And then, even if that study was not very well designed or funded by those e-cigarette companies, it’ll still get through to the media. And then, if you’re just going by these headlines that e-cigarettes are safe, it’s very hard for us to make a very informed decision.“

„The goal of the vaping lobby is obviously to sell as many vaping products as possible. And because regulation plays a big role in how much they can sell, right? So, one of their goals when it comes to lobbying is to try and weaken or avoid these regulations as much as possible.“

The tabling of the bill, Malaysia has seen a new government take the reins with many other political agendas to deal with. The proposed generational endgame bill has taken a back seat for now. Neighboring Indonesia, meanwhile, has moved ahead to regulate and tax the vice to fill government coffers.

„Yeah, the current industry campaign…“

But even as governments grapple with the complex task of regulating e-cigarettes, a more ominous threat looms.

Foreign policy is currently the strictest in Southeast Asia. It is illegal to buy, use, import, or sell vape devices. The ban was based on an early precautionary approach. It’s like, „Okay, we have this new product that could potentially help smokers, but we don’t know its long-term risks. We don’t know how effective it is against current cessation aids. So, we wait for the evidence to come out.“ So, that’s the approach that Singapore has taken.

Meanwhile, a thriving underground market has already emerged, driven by the high demand among young people. Most get their vapes through popular messaging platform Telegram.

„People are getting vaping products from online sellers, to kind of do a cash-on-delivery type service to Singapore addresses, sneaking them across the border from Malaysia.“

Recent raids by the authorities give a sense of the scale of the black market.

„More than $300,000 worth of electronic vaporizers. Nearly $370,000 worth of electronic vaporizers. More than $2.2 million worth of the electronic vaporizers and components has been seized. The HSA found more than 10,000 assorted e-vaporizers, over 48,800 assorted pods, and 187 e-liquids.“

What we’re seeing is people are really unclear about the harms of vaping, and a lot of people don’t even seem to be aware that there’s nicotine inside the e-liquids, which is really addictive.

However small, these are Indonesian police in plain clothes. They’ve just arrested a suspect and are escorting him into this house in West Jakarta. The floor is scattered with various materials, equipment, and hundreds of vape liquid bottles. But these aren’t just your regular vape liquids, because these contain illegal drugs. In recent years, a cottage industry making narcotic vape liquids has started to sprout in Indonesia. But it’s a cottage industry with a wide network.

Information in Indonesia. What’s more, these makeshift home labs don’t stay in the same location for long.

To understand how they came about and what vaping narcotics can do to you, Undercover Asia tracks down fake drug users.

„[Foreign language]“

THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is the psychoactive substance that can be extracted from the cannabis plant. It is the compound responsible for producing the high feeling that people typically associate with marijuana. It is illegal to use, possess, or sell all forms of marijuana in Indonesia.

Instagram, thank you.

But THC isn’t the only drug that is being added to vape liquids.

„Boom! So, beauty and his friends, who were first only users of this illegal vape drug, later became manufacturers and sellers themselves.“

„Used by regular vape manufacturers to attract youth are also what’s masking the scent of the drugs.“


The Tax and Customs Authority are trying to tackle this issue of trading banned goods through technology. But it is a very serious problem. We will appeal again and again for a total ban because otherwise, many of the youth will lose their lungs.