The Government of India’s ban on e-cigarettes has won the approval of Rajya Sabha MPs, who passed legislation prohibiting the devices earlier this week amidst appeals over their negative effects on public health.
The upper house of the Indian Parliament passed the Prohibition of Electronic Cigarettes (Production, Manufacture, Import, Export, Transport, Sale, Distribution, Storage and Advertisement) Bill earlier this week by voice vote. Lok Sabha MPs passed the Bill last month.
An ordinance was passed earlier this year, following the approval of an executive order by the Union Cabinet. The ban was enacted “keeping in mind the impact that e-cigarettes have on the youth of today” and “so we could take early action with regards to health of people,” according to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. “E-cigarettes were promoted as a way to get people out of their smoking habits but reports have shown that many people are not using it as weaning mechanism but are addicted to it,” Sitharaman added.
Following the introduction of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, Vardhan informed MPs that the Government was concerned following plans for the introduction of e-cigarette manufacturer Juul and other tobacco companies to enter the Indian market, as well as reports of e-cigarette users falling ill due to their adverse effects on health. “It was probably one of the most imminent concerns that worried all of us,” Vardhan told Rajya Sabha MPs. “As e-cigarettes have a small consumer base we strongly feel that ban is the most effective measure and the need of the hour.”
Urging them to pass the Bill, Vardhan told Rajya Sabha MPs “there is evidence now that e-cigarettes are very harmful. They can become a bigger menace than tobacco one day. So, the intention of the government has been to nip the problem in the bud itself.” Of an equivalent ban on conventional tobacco products, Vardhan said such a manoeuvre would be difficult. “You see, in a country as vast as India, once a particular product has a very big consumer base and social acceptance, it is in fact very, very difficult to ban it,” he said of tobacco products.
“Any comparison about their [e-cigarettes’] adverse health impacts with tobacco is misplaced,” Vardhan added. “There is also no conclusive evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes are less harmful than conventional cigarettes. On the other hand, there is definitely an emerging evidence all over the world that e-cigarettes have significantly harmful effects on health.” He described nicotine as “the most addictive substance currently known in the world and is even more addictive than heroin. There is currently no known treatment for nicotine-addiction anywhere in the world.”
Some have queried a potential conflict of interest in the Government’s decision to ban e-cigarettes, owing to the fact that state-owned entities own a 28.1 percent share of the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) and that, after the ordinance banning e-cigarettes came into force, companies including the ITC saw their stocks rise. “We have done it [banned e-cigarettes] with very pious intention and there is no vested interest of the government,” Vardhan said.
Even as Rajya Sabha MPs passed the e-cigarette ban, criticisms were raised. “A ban or prohibition, as we have seen everywhere, results in underground activities,” said Karnataka MP Rajeev Gowda of the Indian National Congress (INC). It results in criminalisation of the society. It results in the creation of a mafia that deals with the underground activity.”
Others sought a ban on conventional tobacco products such as cigarettes. “Of course, by this Bill we are preventing a person from committing suicide by jumping from the fifth floor, but we are also keeping the more affordable and accessible tenth floor wide open to jump from,” said West Bengal MP Dr Santanu Sen of the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), who is national president of the Indian Medical Association. He pointed to the adverse effects of tobacco on health, noting “smoking increases coronary heart disease by two to four times. It increases stroke by two to four times. It increases lung cancer by 25 times and it increases the probability of COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) by thirteen times.”
Echoing these concerns, Assam MP Ripun Bora of the INC said “the concern of the minister that [e-cigarettes] has [an] impact on the health of the people is very much appreciable. But at the same time, not only e-cigarette but there are so many products in the market which are more injurious than e-cigarettes.” He also critiqued “draconian” provisions of the Bill such as the ability of certain officers to search premises without a warrant.
West Bengal MP Nadimul Haque of the AITC similarly argued for the expansion of the Bill’s prohibitions to tobacco products, including gutkha and pan masala. “Only banning e-cigarette should not be seen as a solution to the problem of smoking.”