In a move aimed (supposedly) at safeguarding the youth, e-cigarettes have been banned in India with immediate effect. For the uninitiated, the electronic device that costs Rs 6,000 looks like a slightly long pen drive, and contains a nicotine solution that you inhale as vapour (hence the term vaping). While nicotine is the same addictive substance in combustible cigarettes, the battery-operated e-cig doesn’t have tar, nor are users filling their lungs with acrid smoke. “E-cigarettes are being used as a style statement,” alleged Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a little sanctimoniously to media, adding that this preventive step is to ensure they don’t become an “epidemic” among young adults. Those very same young adults still have plenty of options when it comes to making unhealthy choices — regular cigarettes, beedis, paan masala and suparis will continue to be freely available.
It is truly bizarre that a government can get away with banning e-cigarettes by quoting seven unexplained deaths in the US, while doing nothing to check the access minors have to an obscene range of tobacco products on sale at every street corner in India. One can only wonder what Ms Sitharaman has against people projecting chic, though it’s true e-cigarettes look way cooler than the ordinary ones that now seem so dated, like they belong in movies on spies from the Cold War era. The sleek black design lighting up in neon-coloured vape is much more in tune with our gadget-loving age. I’m not a smoker myself. However, the people I know, who have replaced conventional cigarettes with electronic ones, say they feel much better and are no longer plagued by that dreaded, rasping, smokers’ cough.
There must be a reason why the NHS in Britain recommends e-cigs to people intent on quitting the habit, having stated on record, that they’re “95% less harmful”. In the absence of conclusive evidence against e-cigarettes, surely, they deserve to exist as an option, as much or as little as their smoky counterparts. In fact, there is a strong case for the e-cigarette to be encouraged: even if it might be very harmful to the person inhaling, there is no question of passive smoking for the people around. One is also left wondering if Ms Sitharaman is underestimating millennials. While the cool quotient may have driven them to the e-cigarette, many in this generation are acutely aware of the dangers of smoking, and in their heads they’re going for the healthier option.
In an ideal world, none of us would indulge in self-defeating habits that we know, intellectually, are hastening our demise. Smoking, e or otherwise, is dumb. But so is eating bacon, now deemed carcinogenic. Is there a lobby trying to get rid of it altogether? The artificial additives listed in a packet of chips should fill us with terror, as should the bewildering array of high cholesterol junk foods that so much of India regularly partakes in. But the one advantage of being an adult is you get to choose your vices. A friend of mine at my gym, who after years of dogged commitment has shed a miraculous 25 kilos, told me how he has learnt to leave the table a little hungry, cheered by the two cigarettes he allows himself after lunch. An example of the trade-offs, wise or not, we all have to make to hold our lives together. Eventually, we reach our own conclusions of what the lesser evil is.
Not everyone is convinced they would be better off not smoking. It’s a noble mission the anti-smoking lobby is on, to spread the ominous message: smoking will make you die. But there will always be those who disregard it, secure in the knowledge that death is our fate anyway. More than an all-out ban, the e-cigarette industry needs strong regulation, and people left free to test their own willpower.
(This article first appeared in the print edition on September 23, 2019 under the title ‘On the loose: In public interest’.)