New Delhi: India banned electronic cigarettes amid growing fears over the health risks posed by vaping, sending shares of conventional cigarette makers soaring.

The Union cabinet has made the manufacture, import, sale, distribution and advertisements of e-cigarettes a cognizable offence, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said after a Cabinet meeting in New Delhi on Wednesday. Sitharaman, who headed a group of ministers on the issue, said the products are harmful.

Although the long-term impact of vaping is unclear, e-cigarettes have been linked to six deaths due to lung diseases in the US, sparking demands for its ban. E-cigarette makers have also been criticized for targeting young people with flavoured products and canny marketing.

“E-cigarettes pose significant health risks to users that are frighteningly similar to those of conventional cigarettes. They are being marketed as a harm reduction product, which is contrary to the truth," said Bhavna B. Mukhopadhyay, chief executive of Voluntary Health Association of India, a public health organization.

Justifying the ban, Sitharaman cited a US report that said e-cigarette sales have risen 77% because of consumption by students.

“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 said.

The ordinance will need to be approved by Parliament when it returns for the next session due in November. According to the draft ordinance, the storage of e-cigarettes shall now be punishable with imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of up to 50,000 or both. Mint has seen a copy of the draft.

Shares of cigarette makers surged as e-cigarettes have become popular as a smoking cessation aid as well as a lifestyle choice. Shares of ITC gained 1.8%; Godfrey Phillips India soared 7.8%, VST Industries rose 1% and Golden Tobacco advanced 4.5% on Wednesday.

E-cigarettes do not burn tobacco, but use a heating element to vaporize liquid nicotine, which the user inhales. These are not licensed in India and are often marketed as products that are less harmful than cigarettes and which can help smokers quit. According to government data, over 460 e-cigarette brands are available in India, with various configurations of nicotine delivery and in over 7,700 flavours.

Once the ordinance is issued, those holding e-cigarette stocks must declare them and deposit the stocks at the nearest police station. While a sub-inspector of police will be authorized to search and seize stocks, the central and state governments will be free to designate any other equivalent officer for the same.

The proposal to ban the battery-operated products was part of the “first 100 days" agenda of the Narendra Modi government. The Indian Council of Medical Research has also issued a white paper recommending a complete ban on e-cigarettes based on available scientific evidence.

“WHO has also urged member countries to take appropriate steps including prohibiting these products," said a senior official in the health ministry.

The health ministry says chemicals used in e-cigarettes as solvents are hazardous and could be fatal. “Available scientific evidence indicated that e-cigarettes and similar technologies that encourage tobacco are hazardous for an active as well as passive user. Pure nicotine, the main ingredient of e-cigarettes, and its chemical derivatives in extracted chemical form are highly addictive and poisonous and have a potential to cause death even in small quantities," says a health ministry paper on e-cigarettes.

Praveen Rikhy, convener of Trade Representatives of ENDS, a body promoting electronic nicotine delivery systems, said: “Government decision to ban e-cigarettes is ironic and erratic. This ban on e-cigarettes on basis of ‘selective sourcing of scientific and medical opinion’ and without holding a single stakeholder meeting is nothing short of a complete murder of democratic norms."

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