This article originally appeared on VICE India.
Just a week after the US proposed a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes, the Indian government has gone ahead and actually done it. India just officially approved a ban on the sale of all e-cigarettes and vaping devices with immediate effect. A decision the government has been mulling over since the Health Ministry said vaping could be “epidemic”, the ban has been called as necessary by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who also said such devices “pose a health risk to people, especially young smokers”, and have become more of a “style statement”.
"The production, manufacturing, import or export, transport, sale, distribution, storage and advertising related to e-cigarettes are banned," Sitharaman said in a press statement. "Reports say that there are some who are probably getting into the habit of e-cigarettes as it seems cool. It is believed that there are more than 400 brands, none of which is manufactured yet in India. And they come in over 150 flavours." She added that studies found more than 70 percent of e-cigarette users happen to be students, something the government wants to put an end to.
Now, this stance might have been all well and good, except for one tiny hitch: The ban doesn’t seem to include the usage of vapes, only its sale, which many believe is a move to pander to the tobacco lobby. And while Sitharaman has already managed to piss off many young people ever since she blamed them, more precisely the millennials, for the slowdown of the automobile industry, this new move affects more than just one generation.
“From the start, the government has not been considerate about public health or public welfare, backing biased scientific evidence which has been rebutted by scientists from across the world for cherry-picking and misinterpreting research to target Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS),” said Samrat Chowdery, director of the Association of Vapers India (AVI) that represents e-cigarette users across the country, in a press release. “What appears to matter more to the government is protecting its 28% stake in the country’s cigarette monopoly ITC. So hellbent was the government on a ban that it also banned any research into ENDS so that the facts about their relative safety to smoking could be subdued.”
According to a draft ordinance that is up for discussion in Parliament, the sale of e-cigarettes is now punishable with imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of up to Rs 50,000 (US$698.80), or both. But the Health Ministry wants to up the stakes by making the production, manufacturing, import, export, transport, sale, distribution or advertisements of e-cigarettes a cognisable offence, punishable with a jail term of up to one year or a fine up to Rs 1 lakh (US$1,397.60) or both for the first-time offenders, and jail of up to three years and fine up to Rs 5 lakh (US$6,988) for repeat offenders.
This means that once the ordinance is issued, e-cigarette sellers will have to declare and deposit their stock at the nearest police station, while a sub-inspector of police, or any other equivalent officer designated by the centre or state, will be given the right to search and seize these stocks.
While the government says this is a way to curb the nine lakh (900,000) smoking-related deaths that occur in our country, many are sceptical since the e-cigarette ban extends to even nicotine-free vaping devices. And yet, it does not include actual cigarettes. In the meantime, the shares of cigarette makers are going up, which has also led to many raised eyebrows.
“This is detrimental to our business interests for both nicotine and non-nicotine usage as it includes both kinds of vaping devices,” Shrijan Sinha, a legal and policy consultant for Alt Vapors, a homegrown Indian e-cigarette seller that has now been forced to stop all its sales, told VICE. “If the government’s entire argument has a public health angle saying the youth is getting initiated into smoking and developing nicotine addiction, including non-nicotine products, that sounds very arbitrary and absurd. It’s also driven by vested interests in tobacco companies since only the trade and commerce of e-cigarettes has been banned. I can still buy a vape abroad and smoke it in India.”
While e-cigarette sellers like Alt are waiting until the ordinance is properly published, pro-vaping advocates are gearing up to strike while the vape issue is hot. “We will continue to fight for the rights of e-cigarette users and smokers looking to quit or reduce harm to themselves,” says Chowdery,. “Apart from exploring legal options, we will also raise the issue at national and international forums. The government has snatched the rights of India’s 11 crore people to harm reduction. This cannot be allowed to happen.”
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