Deemed illegal in half of India, E-cigarettes are set to be banned entirely on grounds that they are “drugs”, according to reports.
These reports indicate that the health ministry has taken a call to take nicotine inhalers, also called electronic nicotine delivery systems, off the market.
The move raises questions as to how cigarettes, which also deliver nicotine, can be allowed, causing electronic cigarette dealers and associations to claim that the reaction needs more academic study.
Vapes or electronic cigarettes operate on the base of nicotine infused liquid contained in hardware powered by a chargeable battery which uses heat to vaporise the liquid and emulate smoke minus particulate matter in paper and tobacco cigarettes.
E-cigarettes sold today are unlicensed products and largely organised with brands made across the world and have made their way into India. Marketed as a product that can help smokers reduce or quit altogether, it’s also seen as a trendy alternative to traditional cigarettes given that they leave no trace of smoke, odour of tobacco and can be smoked indoors in most places that don’t allow other forms of smoking. Hollywood actor Leonardo Di Caprio is most commonly seen puffing on them at the Academy Awards while seated in the audience.
The move to ban it in India, however, is leading to those in the e-cigarette business, questioning the rationale.
Jay Mehta, President of the Indian Vaping Industry Association, says a ban could boomerang with thousands of smokers who have quit regular cigarettes going back to the greater of the two evils. “Effectively, people are being asked to give up a healthier life and go back to smoking cancer sticks. Is this a measure of population control, one has to wonder?” he asks. Mehta estimates that there around 450,000 ‘vapers’ in the country.
When queried, a government official declined most questions only stating that “nicotine in normal cigarettes is within permissible limits.”
Tobacco major ITC, which retails traditional cigarettes under brands India Kings, Gold Flake and others, did not respond to queries. In its annual report for 2019, however, the tobacco giant says that electronic nicotine delivery systems, broadly referred to as electronic vaping devices, commonly called ‘e-cigarettes’ as well as electronic heat not burn products (eHNB) have been prohibited in as many as 27 countries that include Austria, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, UAE, Brazil and Argentina. In India, ITC’s annual report goes on to say that governments have restricted the same in as many as 12 states. ITC is selling its Eon brand of electronic vaping devices in select states and closely in touch with the regulatory environment. Regulatory issues are also being contested in courts.
Across the Western world, San Francisco-based Juul is the best known organised E-cigarette player and reports indicate that it’s been trying to come into India officially for a while and may do so in late 2019. With more than 100 million smokers, India is one of the largest smoking countries in the world. Juul did not respond to emails clarifying its stand on the ban.
Danny Carroll, brand ambassador of Gurkha Cigars, says, “Classifying electric cigarettes as a narcotic is most likely driven by the government’s desire to protect tax revenue collected on tobacco.” He adds that such collections would have been eroded due to smokers switching from traditional cigarettes to electronic cigarettes and pinch state pockets. “I have not heard of any scientific research that concludes that the nicotine in electronic cigarettes is any more or less harmful than nicotine in tobacco,” adds Carroll.
Should there be more research before the ban? Mehta says it’s beneficial for all concerned to research vaping through credible institutions like IIT or TISS and bring about suitable regulation that is pro public. The same can be achieved by involving all concerned parties. “The Council for Harm Reduced Alternatives (CHRA) and AVI Association of Vapers India has a bank of research data from extremely credible research institutions worldwide,” says Mehta.
Beyond the ban itself, as a former smoker himself, Mehta questions the logic of banning a less harmful alternative while keeping sale of cigarettes open. “Why is the government allowing the sale of an item that kills? Ban vaping, and ban smoking as well,” he says.
Altrea, a tobacco giant that among other companies owns Marlboro manufacturer Philip Morris, had invested $12.8 billion in Juul, at the end of last year, acquiring a 35 per cent stake in the e-cigarette maker as they started on a new path that relies less on traditional cigarettes.
The trend in Western countries is to deregulate and increasingly let people choose what they want to put in their own bodies. “It is unfortunate to see the Indian government moving in the opposite direction for what appears to be nothing more than an exercise in protecting tax collections,” says Carroll.