Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement on Wednesday that the use, storage and sale of e-cigarettes will be banned in India with immediate effect has raised several questions.
Sitharaman said that this step was taken keeping in mind the health of the youth and children of the country. She also claimed that this was to “advance tobacco control efforts”.
But e-cigarettes have been marketed across the world as a tool to quit smoking. Companies that manufacture the devices claim that the vapour generated from e-cigarettes are less harmful than the smoke from combustible cigarettes.
The government’s ban on e-cigarettes has landed at a time when regulators in the US are debating their effect. HuffPost’s Carla Herreria reported on 6 September that in the last few weeks, US health officials have linked two deaths and more than 200 cases of severe respiratory diseases to vape pens and e-cigarettes, though there is no official confirmation of what exactly has been causing this.
While Sitharaman touched upon this in her press conference, there was no mention of whether the government was contemplating banning normal cigarettes, bidis and chewable tobacco in India. According to a 2018 factsheet by the World Health Organisation, tobacco kills more than 1 million people a year in India, which is the world’s second largest consumer of the product.
A survey released in 2018 showed that 232.4 million adults in India (24.9%) use tobacco daily in some form or the other. In comparison, “only a small fraction (0.02%) of adults is currently using e-cigarette”, added the survey.
The risks of passive smoking associated with e-cigarettes are also low. Amir Ulla Khan, an economist formerly with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote in Mint last week that “there is empirical evidence to suggest that countries, which have regulated ENDS (electronic nicotine delivery systems), have witnessed a decline in smoking rates”.
The Modi government, however, seems to be convinced of the harmful effects of vapes and e-cigarettes. Sitharaman’s press conference announcing the decision was accompanied by a painful public service announcement video that looked more like an advertisement than a warning.
Several Twitter users asked why the government was not banning other tobacco products as well if it was really concerned about people’s health.
Industrialist Kiran Mazumdar Shaw took to Twitter to ask why the government did not ban gutka as well, and why the finance minister, not the health minister, was announcing the decision to ban e-cigarettes.
Unlike in the US, the tobacco industry in India does not have stakes in the e-cigarette industry.
Earlier this year, a study by Assocham had shown that the industry contributes a whopping Rs 11,79,498 crore to Indian economy and employs an estimated 4.57 crore people.
While Shaw questioned why Sitharaman was not taking steps to revive the economy, Twitter asked how much profit this would bring India’s tobacco companies.
They were not wrong. Within minutes of the announcement, shares of cigarette manufacturers such as ITC and Golden Tobacco saw sharp upward spikes.
Many people thought the move to ban e-cigarettes and leave other tobacco products untouched was an absolute joke.
Others even said that Sitharaman actually wanted people to go back to traditional forms of smoking.
Some Twitter users called out the Modi government for earning revenue from tobacco.
Meanwhile, Union Health Secretary Preeti Sudan said a debate on whether e- cigarettes and similar products are more harmful than tobacco cigarettes was of little help.
“Why are we debating whether it it more or less harmful...it is a good move to ban it,” PTI quoted her as saying.