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Explained: Why e-cigarettes bother the govt

Production and sale have been made a punishable offence. How widespread is their use in India? What are the health concerns around such products, and how do they compare with traditional tobacco?

Written by Prabha Raghavan | New Delhi |
Updated: September 19, 2019 8:49:39 am
First-time offenders may face imprisonment of up to one year, a fine up to Rs 1 lakh, or both.

On Wednesday, the Union Cabinet approved an ordinance prohibiting electronic cigarettes in the country. It makes production, manufacture, import, export, transport, sale, distribution, storage and advertisement of e-cigarettes and other Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) such as vapes, e-hookahs and e-cigars a punishable offence.

First-time offenders may face imprisonment of up to one year, a fine up to Rs 1 lakh, or both. Subsequent offences may lead to up to three years’ imprisonment and Rs 5 lakh in fine, while those found storing e-cigarettes and other such ENDS products will face up to six months in prison and up to Rs 55,000 in fines, or both.

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a solution of nicotine and different flavours to create aerosol, which is then inhaled. These devices belong to a category of vapour-based nicotine products called ENDS. E-cigarettes and other ENDS products may look like their traditional counterparts (regular cigarettes or cigars), but they also come in other shapes and sizes and can resemble daily use products, including pens and USB drives.

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Several companies selling ENDS in India have positioned these products as a safer, less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes or as devices that could help users quit smoking.

What is the size of the e-cigarettes market in India?

India’s vapour products market was nascent, but expected to experience rapid growth. It was valued at over $15 million in 2017, according to analyst reports, and projected to grow nearly 60 per cent a year up to 2022. A recent study by Prescient and Strategic Intelligence showed that India’s e-cigarette market was expected to reach $45.3 million by 2024, growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 26.4 per cent.

E-cigarettes are the most common type of ENDS, with over 460 different brands and more than 7,700 flavours marketed in India currently. Imports of e-cigarettes, their accessories and other ENDS products grew around 119 per cent from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

electronic cigarettes banned, e-cigarette banned, india bans e-cigarettes, electronic cigarette ban, nirmala sitharaman cigarette ban Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman addresses a press conference on Cabinet decisions in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Tashi Tobgyal)

Why does the government want to ban these devices?

The Health Ministry and Central Drugs Standards Control Organisation, India’s drug regulatory authority, had attempted in the past to ban the import and sale of these products citing public health concerns. Before the ordinance was announced, the government had been facing hurdles in the form of court cases against the move, as ENDS were not declared as ‘drugs’ in the country’s drug regulations.

Health Ministry sources earlier told The Indian Express these products have neither been assessed for safety in the national population, nor been approved under provisions of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940. Yet, they have been widely available to consumers, one of them had said. Though some smokers have claimed to have cut down smoking while using ENDS, the total nicotine consumption seemed to remain “unchanged”, according to the government.

Source: Ministry of Commerce and Industry, July 2019

In May 2019, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) released a white paper stating that the uses of ENDS, or e-cigarettes, have “documented adverse effects” which include DNA damage; carcinogenesis (initiation of cancer formation); cellular, molecular and immunological toxicity; respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological disorders. It also impacts foetal development and pregnancy, according to ICMR, which had recommended a “complete prohibition” of these products.

electronic cigarettes banned, e-cigarette banned, india bans e-cigarettes, electronic cigarette ban, nirmala sitharaman cigarette ban Union Ministers Nirmala Sitharaman and Prakash Javdekar address the press on Cabinet decisions in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Tashi Tobgyal)

Who gains?

The government feels its decision will help “protect the population, especially youth and children, from the risk of addiction through e-cigarettes”. It says enforcement of the ordinance will complement its efforts to reduce tobacco use and, therefore, help in reducing the economic and disease burden associated with it.

Apart from this, traditional tobacco firms, too, could potentially gain from the ban. Share prices of some tobacco firms listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange like ITC, VST Industries, Golden Tobacco and even Godfrey Phillips India, which has its own portfolio of e-cigarettes for the Indian market, rose as much as 9 per cent intra-day on Wednesday. A closer look at the shareholding pattern of these companies shows that the central government, too, has the potential to benefit financially from this move, with central and state-owned firms making notional gains of nearly Rs 1,000 crore on Wednesday.

e-cigarettes, e-cigarettes ban, ban on e-cigarettes, e-cigarettes in india, e-cigarettes ordinance, e-cigarettes ban ordinance, india news, Indian Express Trade representatives promoting e-cigarettes and a consumer body have questioned the need for rushing through an ordinance to ban such devices in the country. (file)

Does this mean traditional tobacco products are safer?

Traditional tobacco products like cigarettes and chewing tobacco are already known to be harmful. According to the CDC in the US, cigarette smoking harms “nearly every organ of the body, causes many diseases, and reduces the health of smokers in general”.

A study published in The Lancet found tobacco use was the “leading” risk factor for cancers in India in 2016. ICMR estimates that India is likely to face over 17 lakh new cancer cases and over eight lakh deaths by 2020. In 2018, India had nearly 27 crore tobacco users and a “substantial” number of people exposed to second-hand smoke, putting them at an increased risk for cardiovascular diseases, according to a fact sheet by the World Health Organization. Tobacco kills over 1 million people each year, contributing to 9.5 per cent of all deaths, it said.


US: Has the highest population of smokeless tobacco and vape-product users. Reports of over 400 hospitalisations and six deaths related to use of e-cigarette and vape uses. Plans to ban all e-cigarette flavours, except for tobacco.

UK: Says British vapers are safe, as the issues in the US are due to use of “illicit”, street-bought or home-made vaping fluid. Sales of ENDS products like vapes are legal. Introduced regulations for e-cigarette firms in 2016.

China: Houses a third of the world’s smokers. Has reportedly seen an increasing population of vapers, especially young people. Announced in July 2019 that it plans to regulate e-cigarettes to strengthen supervision of these products.

France: Allows sale of e-cigarettes as either medicines or consumer products, but those making health claims related to these products need marketing authorisation under standard drug licencing process. Those selling as consumer products are regulated by the country’s May 2016 decree on vapour products containing nicotine.

Germany: Classifies nicotine-containing e-cigarettes as tobacco-related products and regulates it under country’s 2016 law on Implementation of the Tobacco Products Directive and Related Products.

Japan: Non-nicotine e-cigarettes currently not regulated, but nicotine-containing e-cigarettes are classified as medicinal products and regulated under Japan’s pharmaceutical affairs law. —Source: Johns Hopkins Institute for Global Tobacco Control, The Guardian, The Jakarta Post, CGTN

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