This article originally appeared on VICE India
Slip into the smoking room of your city’s most popular bar or restaurant and you’ll instantly spot at least one person pulling on a compact metallic device with a tiny blinking light, exhaling concentrated clouds of smoke without going back to their table smelling like an ashtray.
A device that heats a nicotine-infused liquid and lets you inhale its vapour, vaping is what all the cool kids seem to be doing in a country of over 100 million smokers. It simulates the smoking experience without the tar and other carcinogenic byproducts and has thus always been touted as a healthier alternative to your post-lunch Marlboro Lights. But just as vape manufacturers and e-cigarette sellers were riding on a high, the government seems determined that they go down.
According to a report by the Press Trust of India, The Drugs Technical Advisory Board of India has approved a proposal to regulate Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (or ENDS) by classifying them as “drugs” and cancelling them from being sold in the country. Under Sections 26A and 10A of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, this proposal plans to prohibit the sale, manufacture, import and distribution of all ENDS.
The proposal states that, “After revisiting its earlier deliberations, the Drugs Consultative Committee has recommended that since ENDS and related products are used as a tobacco cessation product and function for nicotine delivery, these devices fall under the definition of ‘drug’ as defined under Section 3(b) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940.”
This move comes highly recommended by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that has recommended a “complete ban” on ENDS, saying such devices become a gateway to smoking and can get a non-smoker addicted to nicotine. 12 states, from Maharashtra to Karnataka to Himachal Pradesh, have already banned their sale months ago, while Haryana and Odisha plan to hop onto the ban-wagon.
Now the thing about vaping is it’s tough to sift through all the bad press it’s got. Is it bad for you? Sure it is. But is it better for you if you are an addicted smoker? A resounding yes. But still, when India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare examined the effects of vaping in 2017, they said that ENDS are as addictive as combustible cigarettes, contradicting almost every toxicology study conducted all over the world. In fact, many leading scientists say that ENDS only carry 5 percent of the risk of normal cigarettes and a detailed report by the United States National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine stresses that there is evidence that e-cigarettes “reduce users’ exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens present in combustible tobacco cigarettes” and that “e-cigarettes result in reduced short-term adverse health outcomes in several organ systems.” It is even encouraged by the National Health Service in the UK as an acceptable alternative for smoking cigarettes.
Much of the negativity around the vape though—costing between Rs 2,000 to Rs 15,000 compared to the Rs 15 you pay per cigarette—is around the easy availability and the danger it poses to minors, serving as a gateway to actual smoking rather than a deterrent. But does the solution lie in criminalising it?
“Ever since I started vaping in 2015, I have completely stopped smoking and it helps to keep urges in line,” says 22-year-old Hoshang Major, a Pune-based ‘vape influencer’ and reviewer.
“I have even weaned his friends and family off smoking by encouraging them to vape instead.” Major is part of a vape-lobbying group called Association of Vaping India (AVI), and was at the forefront of a petition challenging the proposed ban back in 2017.
But even though vaping may soon be lumped into the same category as weed or cocaine, Major feels it won’t change too much in the vaping industry. “We’re going to have to do it in black and it would become the way people smoke weed,” he points out. “You can make it at home with vegetable glycerin and flavour, the coil can be made with stainless steel and batteries are openly sold, so we’ll keep doing it anyway because vapes like JUULs are easy to conceal.”
Many are speculating another ulterior motive: to block the rapid rise of multinational companies selling ENDS from establishing a monopoly in the Indian market since Indian sellers are hindered by regulatory hurdles. And since tobacco production and sales account for nearly 2 per cent of tax revenue in India and the industry employs nearly 7 million people, ranging from farmers to producers, it makes sense to cancel out the tobacco industry’s closest competitor.
But many feel the ban will create a social stigma around the product. “A ban doesn't mean much in India because even in Gujarat where there is an alcohol ban, one can get it home delivered,” says Samrat Chowdhery, Director of AVI. “But it will mean safety and standards cannot be ensured which will put consumers at higher risk, and affect public perception of these products. This may slow down the transition of smokers from deadly combustible products to less harmful means of nicotine intake, which have an overall negative impact on public health.”
Chowdhery, a content specialist who got into vape advocacy after Karnataka’s e-cigarette ban in 2016, feels that the ban would alienate all those trying to avoid harmful tobacco products through vaping. “While there is no bar on its use or possession, many times users get harassed or even penalised by the police if the product they are using is seen as illegal.”
So why is the government willing to cancel an entire industry because nicotine is harmful to health, when smoking cigarettes is worse or at least as bad? And does this mean you now have to hand over that expensive new JUUL you just ordered online? Can you be thrown in jail for what you thought was better not just for your body but to eliminate second-hand smoke for those around you as well? Information about what the implementation of such a ban would involve is still kinda cloudy. Because unlike the smoke they emit, vapes and the culture they have created, aren’t just going to disappear into thin air.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.