By Josh Horwitz
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s tobacco regulator on Friday issued a notice asking e-commerce platforms and businesses to shut online stores that sell electronic cigarette products, in a move aimed at stopping minors from purchasing e-cigarettes through the internet.
The notice comes not long after online platforms and retailers in the U.S. launched similar takedowns amid government scrutiny toward vaping’s effect on public health.
It also arrives as a bevvy of Chinese startups race to capture a piece of China’s massive potential market for e-cigarettes.
The notice, which was dated October 30, was published one day later on the website of state monopoly China Tobacco, which is overseen by the country’s tobacco regulator.
In order to “further strengthen the protection of the physical and mental health of minors,” the regulator “urges e-cigarette producers, retailers, or individual sellers to temporarily close online sales websites or channels” and “urges e-commerce platform to temporarily close e-cigarette shops,” the regulator stated.
China is home to over 300 million smokers, making it the world’s largest market for smokers.
In recent years Chinese startups have taken venture capital money and launched products with similar design characteristics to those made by Juul – the e-cigarette company backed by Altria Group Inc that swept the United States with its compact form factor and potent nicotine salt formulation.
RELX Technology, founded by former employees of Uber China, and SnowPlus, founded by a team of former bitcoin entrepreneurs, are among the domestic market leaders.
The companies currently operate in a regulatory grey area in China, as no national-level rules exist that provide standards for the safe manufacture and sale of nicotine salt-based e-cigarettes.
Meanwhile, China Tobacco operates as a state-backed monopoly, controlling the sale and distribution of all tobacco products across the country. The unit also generates nearly 6% of the country’s total tax revenue, according to government figures.
In September, an official Juul online store briefly appeared on Chinese e-commerce sites run by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and JD.com, only to disappear days later. Juul and the retailers did not comment on the store’s abrupt takedown at the time.
In a public statement, RELX Technology said it will comply with the regulator’s notice and shut down its online sales channels. SnowPlus told Reuters it would comply with the regulations as well.
Alibaba and JD.com did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Over the past year, Walmart, Walgreens, and other American retailers have pulled e-cigarettes from their shelves, following a public health scare over their impact on minors.
(Corrects name of company to SnowPlus from Snow+)
(Reporting by Josh Horwitz and Brenda Goh; Editing by Susan Fenton & Simon Cameron-Moore)