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Crackdown on e-cigarettes and similar devices

E-cigarette devices, electronic nicotine delivery systems concept. Concept note showing use. Authorities in Rajasthan are moving against e-cigarettes in the state following the decision of the state government to ban the devices.

Coinciding with last week’s observance of World No Tobacco Day, it was announced that e-cigarettes, or electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), would be prohibited in the northern state. The rules prohibit the devices from being stored, manufactured, or advertised.

In the days since, three health department agencies – including the department’s drug control, food safety, and tobacco control arms – jointly conducted a series of raids. In the process, Rs 15 lakh worth of unlicensed tobacco products were seized. This included Rs 10 lakh worth of illicit e-cigarettes. The remaining Rs 5 lakh worth of products included tobacco-molasses and imported cigarettes lacking the legally required health labelling and warnings. City police are questioning one individual implicated in the sale of illegal tobacco products.

The actions undertaken in Rajasthan continues a trend of heightened scrutiny against e-cigarettes in India. Raids of the kind seen in Rajasthan are relatively common occurrences. In Hyderabad last year, for example, Rs 7 lakh worth of e-cigarette products were seized. In recent weeks, it was discovered that 36 e-cigarette brands are operating outside of the law in India.

Beyond the illegal sales of e-cigarettes, efforts have been underway since last year to ban their legal sale entirely. The Union Health Ministry in August directed state governments to ban e-cigarettes. The Ministry asserted that the devices pose a “great health risk to the public at large, especially to children, adolescents, pregnant women, and women of reproductive age.”

On World No Tobacco Day, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) also called for a ban to be imposed on ENDS. Director-General Professor Balram Bhargava stated

“Use of ENDS or e-cigarettes has documented adverse effects on humans, which include DNA damage; carcinogenic, cellular, molecular and immunological toxicity; respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological disorders; and adverse impact on fetal development and pregnancy”

Shortly before World No Tobacco Day, a chorus of more than 1,000 public health doctors and ninety public health organisations exhorted the Prime Minister to effect the ban on e-cigarettes. This opposition has not manifested without results.

To date, a number of states have imposed bans (some of which were in force before the Health Ministry’s directive). As well as Rajasthan, states including Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Mizoram, Puducherry, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh have imposed prohibitive policies against e-cigarettes.

This is not to say that efforts to ban e-cigarette use in India have been wholly smooth sailing. The Delhi High Court stayed the Union Health Ministry’s ban on ENDS in March this year. The Union Trade Ministry declined to ban the import of e-cigarettes, citing a lack of legal basis to do so. The frustration of anti-ENDS policies at these levels will likely fail to minimise the continued push to ban the devices, though it could contribute to an impasse between different stakeholders with contrasting paths forwards in the fight against ENDS – and tobacco products more broadly.

It is worth noting too how the prohibitionist stance of the Indian government – whilst aligning with policies enacted in countries such as Brazil – differ from positions taken by other countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, a science and technology committee made up of Members of Parliament (MPs) support e-cigarettes as a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes. Public Health England (PHE) issued a report broadly favourable towards e-cigarettes, stating that “vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking and switching completely from smoking to vaping conveys substantial health benefits”. It also states that “the evidence does not support the concern that e-cigarettes are a route into smoking among young people” – a common concern raised in India. The PHE report concurred with sentiments expressed by US researchers.

In a nation which loses more than one million lives to smoking every year, it is perhaps misplaced to centralise tobacco control energy and efforts against e-cigarettes when they could be a valuable tool in helping smokers kick the habit and provide a safer alternative. To be clear, more needs to be done to ensure e-cigarettes meet safety standards and to prevent the flourishing of an ENDS black market. However, this cannot be achieved if a blanket stance of prohibitionism is adopted.

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