Smoking is injurious to health, and the use of tobacco products has been linked to a host of diseases, including various cancers and cardiovascular ailments. According to WHO, tobacco causes over 10 million deaths annually in India. In the US, the figure stands at 4,80,000. “Vaping”, or the use of e-cigarettes (called ENDS or Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems), has resulted so far in seven confirmed deaths in the US. Cigarettes, chewing tobacco and related products continue to be legal in India, and through being heavily taxed as well as via the government’s stake in domestic tobacco giants, significantly add to the earnings of the exchequer. However, on Wednesday, the Union government announced an ordinance banning ENDS. In terms of first principles as well the purported concern for citizens’ health, the ban on e-cigarettes smacks of hypocrisy and an arbitrary exercise of executive authority.
The Promulgation of the Prohibition of Electronic Cigarettes Ordinance provides for imprisonment of up to one year and/or fines up to Rs 1 lakh for the first offence, imprisonment of up to three years and a fine up to Rs 5 lakh for a subsequent offence. Those possessing ENDS must suo motu turn them over at the local police station, else face the harsh consequences of the executive decree. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry has welcomed the move and share prices of ITC and VST Industries registered a sharp increase in the wake of the ban. In the worst-case scenario, vaping will be as bad as smoking. And like cigarettes, ENDS must be regulated, come with health warnings, not be sold to minors, etc. Like other “sin goods”, they can be taxed to the point of disincentivising their use. By banning ENDS and maintaining the status quo on tobacco products, the government is in danger of giving the impression that it is protecting the tobacco industry’s interests against a disruptor in that market.
The e-cigarette ban is a symptom of a larger malaise — governing by the brute force of a hammer when the subtlety of a scalpel is required. “Vaping” is as much a social and cultural phenomenon as it is a public health issue. For older smokers, it can offer a path to quitting and for the youth, it can be aspirational. That the Centre has refused even to engage with this aspect, and, instead moved to push vaping underground by banning it shows laziness in engaging with a complex problem. Prohibition does not work. A conversation about the reasons for addiction just might.