Cabinet clears ordinance to impose ban on e-cigarettes
The Union Cabinet, at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Wednesday proposed an ordinance to ban production, import, export, transport, sale, storage, distribution, even advertising of e-cigarettes in the country. E-Hookahs, and online sale and advertising of these products, have also been included in the ban, which has been prompted by a belief in government circles that young people who may otherwise have not taken up smoking are becoming users of these devices.
E-cigarettes, technically known as Electronic Nicotine Delivery Devices (ENDS), are increasingly being seen by smokers as a harm reduction alternative to cigarettes, specially among the young, with at least a 900% increase in usage between 2011 and 2016 in the United States.
Apart from e-cigarettes, ENDS include heat-not-burn devices, which generate a flavourful nico
otine-containing vapour, vapes, e-sheeshas and e-nicotine flavoured hookahs.
“We don’t agree that ENDS is a harm reduction device. Secondly, the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) data shows there’s a decline in the number of smokers, with only about 10% of population smoking cigarettes in India. Actually the young population is being targeted as customers for ENDS,” said Preeti Sudan, Union health secretary.
The ordinance proposes an imprisonment of up to 1 year or a fine of Rs 1 lakh or both, for first time offenders. For repeat offenders, the term could extend up to 3 years and fine of Rs 5 lakh. Defaulting will be a cognisable offence, except for storage of the device.
Storage of e-cigarettes shall also be punishable with an imprisonment up to six months or fine up to Rs 50,000 or both. However, possession for personal use is not banned.
“For personal use, it’s not banned but over a period of time these products will stop being made available in India after the ban,” a health ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
Association of Vapers India (AVI), an organisation that represents e-cigarette users across the country, called the ordinance “regressive”.
“The government may be patting its back for banning e-cigarettes but this is a draconian move considering the risk to the health of millions of smokers. On one hand we talk about transitioning from a developing to developed nation but on the other we are closing our doors to new technology that has been embraced globally by governments and used by millions worldwide to quit smoking,” said Samrat Chowdhery, director, AVI.
Finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, who chaired the group of ministers that discussed the adverse health impact of the use of e-cigarettes or vaping, said that the group extensively referred to the data available from the United States on use of ENDS during their discussions.
About three million people in the US are regular users of e-cigarettes.
“The data available until yesterday reports seven deaths directly linked to use of e-cigarettes. There has been a 77.8% growth among school students (classes 10-12), and even surprising is that middle school students have become victims and taken to e-cigarettes and the growth increase among this section is about 48.5%,” Sitharaman said at a press briefing after a Cabinet meeting.
“It’s odourless but the smoke which is exhaled by the e-cigarette users contains very high level of residual nicotine that may be inhaled by people around standing as passive smokers. It has already caused a lot of concern in the US and other developed countries, so our Cabinet rightly thought to ban it for the sake of the health of our people,” she added.
As per estimates, at least 400 brands of e-cigarettes are available in India and there are 150 flavours to choose from. The e-cigarettes, however, are not yet manufactured in India.
“E-cigarettes got promoted initially as a way in which people can get out of the habit of smoking cigarettes but if you look at reports they suggest people are smoking as well as vaping. There are some who are getting into the habit because it is cool. You don’t even need a matchstick; it just has to be fully charged like your mobile phone,” Sitharaman said.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) earlier this year also recommended a ban after going through the data on ENDS.
“We received several representations from experts, including our apex research body, ICMR, that recommended banning ENDS. It’s not a question of more harmful or less harmful; it’s harmful. Period. Our next generations are going to go down the drain if it’s not controlled now,” said Sudan.
The ordinance becomes effective after the President of India signs it. The owners of existing stocks of e-cigarettes on the date of commencement of the ordinance will have to suo motu (on their own) declare and deposit these stocks with the nearest police station.
“We hope to take this matter up in the next session of Parliament,” said Sitharaman.
Some experts welcomed the move.
“E-cigarettes and other forms of ENDS are like ticking bombs for the youth of a developing economy like ours. It’s good to nip the menace in the bud,” says Dr Ravi Mehrotra, CEO, Indian Cancer Research Consortium, (ICMR-DHR).
But others pointed out that cigarettes pose a bigger threat than e-cigarettes.
Trade Representatives of ENDS (TRENDS) in India criticised the move. “Since e-cigarettes do not contain tar, they are proving to be a much safer alternative for smokers. India has one of the highest smoking populations in the world. This decision by the government is strange – it’s like saying we will remove the safer product from the market, and allow the more dangerous one to be sold,” said Praveen Rikhy, convenor, TRENDS.
The difficult part will be to implement the ban.
“The enforcement agencies will have to be alert because chances of spurious products entering the market through illegal channels become high and do more harm,” says Dr SK Arora, additional director, health, Delhi government, who used to head the state’s anti-tobacco cell.
Congress leader Ajay Maken on Wednesday asked the government why cigarettes and ‘paan masala’ should not be banned in the country if it can ban e-cigarettes, saying: “We want to ask the government if it will ban other cigarettes in the country too.”