To protest against the ban on electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) in India, the Association of Vapers India (AVI), a nonprofit advocacy group, has called for countrywide protests to mark September 18 as Black Day.
The association argues that the ban on e-cigarettes and vaping, placed last year by the central government, has deprived chronic smokers who are trying to quit and others who can’t quit, of a healthier alternative. E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices which emit a vaporised solution to inhale. The solution contains nicotine. The aim is to provide the sensation of inhaling tobacco smoke, without the smoke.
“We are bringing vapers together to protest against the draconian ban by the government on September 18 last year. Due to this arbitrary decision, efforts taken to promote harm reduction to reduce India’s tobacco health burden have been wasted. In our country, where nearly a million people die of smoking every year, it is important to promote risk reduction tools,” says AVI director Samrat Chaudhary.
On September 18 last year, the Indian government banned e-cigarettes through the Prohibition of E-cigarettes Ordinance, 2019. The government blamed the uncertain health risks associated with e-cigarettes, vapes and ENDS (electronic nicotine delivery systems), as the reasons for enforcing the ban.
While announcing the ban, the government said that though e-cigarettes had been promoted as a tool for helping people quit smoking, in some cases, they had proven to be addictive. The government said that the ban was aimed at protecting the youth from being exposed to e-cigarettes, fears first expressed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Vapers Association Says E-Cigarettes Help Quit Smoking
In contrast, AVI feels that the ban on e-cigarettes shows lack of foresight. The association has released a 10-point agenda which elaborates on the reasons as to why the ban on e-cigarettes should be reversed.
One of the points raised by AVI in its agenda talks about the different options for quitting smoking and their success rate. According to the association, cold turkey attempts (abrupt stoppage on smoking) have a measly success rate of 5%, while the use of nicotine gums and patches helped 7% of users quit smoking, with the success rate increasing to 15% when supplemented with further counselling. The association hasn’t mentioned the source for these figures.
The association says that nicotine gums and patches are out of reach for most Indian citizens due to their high price point, also because these are not available at subsidised rates. It claims that e-cigarettes can be made at a price point that bidi smokers can also afford, and are shown to be twice as effective than nicotine gums and patches in helping users wean off their smoking habits.
The association cites data from the Global Adult Tobacco Survey – 2 (GATS-2) to highlight that India has 10.6 Cr people who smoke. It adds that 13.5 lakh Indians continue to die every year from tobacco-related illnesses, with an annual economic loss of up to INR 2 lakh crores. It claims that banning safer alternatives to smoking will only perpetuate India’s tobacco problem.
Other points raised in AVI’s agenda, accuse the government of being hand-in-glove with tobacco companies, whose shares rocketed after India banned e-cigarettes. This assertion of AVI has also been backed by other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Last year, after the ban on e-cigarettes, several NGOs questioned the government for not banning traditional cigarettes to safeguard the health of its citizens.
Atul Goyal, the president of United Residents Joint Action (URJA) had alleged that many government members were active in tobacco companies and earned dividends from the companies that produce, promote and sell cigarettes.
In its agenda, AVI blames the government for not looking to conduct scientific research on the impact of e-cigarettes but instead, relying on research studies conducted in other countries, which AVI claims have since been discredited.
Moreover, the agenda adds that the outright ban on e-cigarettes has proven ineffective and has led to the sale of such products in major cities through a black market. It claims that while proper regulation would have brought economic benefits for the country from the industry, while also ensuring that the products are kept out of the reach of children, the ban has brushed the issue under the carpet to an extent where the potentially negative consequences of the use of e-cigarettes could fester into a problem of unmanageable proportions.
A Business Insider report from May also highlighted that while the ban drove out major e-cigarette companies such as Juul and Vape, e-cigarettes are still freely available and sold in India from the roadside paan shops. Further, there is a growing prevalence of e-cigarettes and vapes imported from China, which are sold in black markets of the major Indian cities.
Before the ban, Juul and Vape were among the popular e-cigarette makers in India, besides alt. vapors, Renova and ITC’s Eon.
Inconclusive Research Mars Adoption
Globally, research into the effects and addictiveness of e-cigarettes has been inconclusive, owing majorly to the varied inferences drawn from these studies. While some studies, those cited by AVI, talk about e-cigarettes being less addictive due to reduced quantities of nicotine present in them than in conventional cigarettes, more research suggests that promulgating e-cigarettes as a safe alternative to smoking could normalise the habit amongst teens.
On e-cigarettes, WHO says that the nicotine solution present in them can have “adverse effects during pregnancy and may contribute to cardiovascular disease.”
“Although nicotine itself is not a carcinogen, it may function as a tumour promoter. Nicotine seems involved in fundamental aspects of the biology of malignant diseases, as well as of neurodegeneration,” as per WHO.
The WHO, while conceding that there is insufficient data to understand the full breadth of the impact of e-cigarettes on one’s health, has also flagged the easy manipulation of e-cigarettes and ENDS, to increase the device’s nicotine delivery capacity.
Tobacco Farmers Opposed To E-Cigarettes
Even as AVI looks to protest against the ban on e-cigarettes and advocates harm reduction policies, calling it a more humane and effective tobacco control strategy, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) is vehemently opposed to e-cigarettes, as it says that their use could jeopardise the livelihoods of tobacco farmers.
In September last year, BKU had appealed to the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Minister of Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal to ban e-cigarettes and safeguard the livelihoods of Indian farmers. The same month, e-cigarettes were banned in the country.
As the ban on e-cigarettes completes one year, Upendra Nath Sharma, partner at law firm J Sagar Associates, says that it is pivotal for the government to reassess its stance on e-cigarettes and vaping. “The government should commence an independent scientific analysis suitable for the Indian scenario. It is critical to realise that not all tobacco products are harmful and should not be treated as equal,” he says.
“There is an urgent need for a balanced policy-making approach, keeping concerns of various stakeholders including corporates, industry and consumers, in mind. It must be supported by a stringent implementation to maximise use among adult smokers who cannot or do not wish to quit smoking, thereby encouraging them to switch to relatively safer alternatives,” Sharma adds.