JOHOR BARU – Hundreds of small colourful boxes line the shelves in a room about half the size of a classroom. A sweet scent with a light fruity note lingers in the air.
Operating out of the first floor of a house in Johor Baru, the shop sells e-cigarettes, more commonly referred to as vapes.
Many Singaporeans entering Malaysia make one of their first stops there after a visit to a petrol station.
When The Straits Times dropped in at just past midnight in the early hours of Friday (April 15), a group of Singaporeans were there buying vapes.
Vaping and the sale of e-cigarettes are illegal in Singapore, but they said the devices were only for personal use at home.
Keith (not his real name), who is in his 30s, said he has been in and out of Malaysia several times since the border reopened on April 1.
He said the vape shop, which is approximately 15 minutes from the Causeway, was a familiar haunt prior to the pandemic, and he returned there for the range of flavours and devices.
The shop has a “very wide range of flavours” and the items are “about a third of the price compared with the ones sold by illegal sellers in Singapore”, he said.
“I don’t buy in bulk; I just buy for my own use. Usually, they (the border authorities) don’t check. They just go after those who try to smuggle vapes in by the thousands,” he added.
The use and sale of e-cigarettes have been banned in Singapore since 2018.
Buying, using and being in possession of an e-cigarette carry a maximum fine of $2,000.
Earlier this month, 1,200 such devices and more than 49,000 related accessories hidden in three Malaysia-registered lorries entering Singapore were seized. The items had a street value of more than $300,000.
Five Malaysian men, aged 21 to 51, are assisting the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) with investigations.
Vaping has reportedly been on the rise in Singapore, with the devices and accessories often sold through chat groups on messaging platform Telegram.
This is in spite of numerous warnings from the authorities and medical professionals that vaping poses significant health risks. Singapore’s Ministry of Health has cited many studies in the various warnings.
But the common perception among those who spoke to ST was that vaping was banned because of taxation challenges.
“I think vaping is banned because the authorities can’t tax e-cigarettes,” claimed Keith, who has been vaping for about five years.
“So many Singaporeans have been buying vapes illegally and vaping.”
He believes vaping is less harmful than smoking.
Another Singaporean at the vape shop was Bob (not his real name), who is in his 40s.
He said such shops are very popular with Singaporeans.
“Here, you can see the whole range and… try the different types before you buy. Singaporeans go to the vape shops in different countries for this experience. You can’t get anything like that in Singapore.”
Vape shops in JB operate in a grey area.
Vapes work by activating a heating element in the device, vaporising a liquid that is then inhaled by the user.
In Malaysia, the sale of such liquids containing nicotine has been banned since 2015, but there are no specific regulations governing the sale and use of the vape device itself and vape liquids without nicotine.
There are plans for laws to regulate and tax instead of instituting a ban on the sale of vape liquids containing nicotine, but while this is still being worked out by lawmakers, it has become socially acceptable among many in the community for vapes with nicotine to be sold.
Many vape shops in JB operate out of residential premises.
In the city centre alone, there are about 30 such shops, of which about half are popular with Singaporeans.
The vape shop that ST visited was run by Malaysian couple Shah (not his real name) and his wife.
Shah, who is in his 40s, said they started the business just over a decade ago.
He said that just before the pandemic, business had been booming, with about RM20,000 (S$6,300) in sales a day.
“But during the pandemic, business dropped by about maybe 70 per cent,” said Shah.
“We catered to the locals for the past two years. It was painful getting by. Now we’re very happy Singaporeans are coming back.”
Shah said business is now at about 50 per cent of what it was before the pandemic, with about 30 or so Singaporeans visiting his shop daily.
He used to get more than 80 Singaporeans visiting daily at all hours of the day.
His wife, Pam (not her real name), who is in her 30s, claimed they cried when the borders reopened.
“We were so overwhelmed with emotion because our Singaporean regulars were coming back,” she said.
“To us, they are more than just customers. They are friends and part of our community. When they came back to our shop, some even hugged us and said they missed us so much as well.”
Pam, who believes vapes are safe and that many vape liquids are made from natural ingredients, said Singaporeans spend an average of about RM300 on vapes and accessories on each visit.
The mother of two showed ST several vapes with flavours like grape and mango, and others that touted flavours of popular canned drinks.
Many of these were disposable devices decked out in bright colours.
She said she and her husband do not sell vapes in bulk and will not accede to requests for items sold to be packed in a concealed manner.
In Singapore, it is illegal to import, distribute or sell imitation tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and their accessories.
Those convicted of doing so may be jailed for up to six months and fined up to $10,000. The maximum sentence is doubled for repeat offenders.
Those with information on the illegal importation, distribution or sale of such items can submit an online report at this website or call HSA’s Tobacco Regulation Branch on 6684-2036 or 6684-2037.