NEW DELHI : A panel of ministers led by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will study a health ministry proposal to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes through an ordinance, two people aware of the matter said. The panel includes ministers from commerce, health, agriculture, chemicals and petrochemicals, and food processing departments.

In August 2018, the health ministry issued an advisory restricting advertisements of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), popularly called e-cigarettes. Following this, the central drug regulator wrote to state drug controllers saying no ENDS products were approved, and asked them to ensure these products were not sold. However, the Delhi high court stayed the move in March, saying e-cigarettes were not drugs, and authorities did not have powers to issue such a direction.

The health ministry then sought opinion on the issue from the Attorney General, who suggested that “order would not stand in the way of the promulgation of an ordinance".

“We are looking at the best course of action to ban e-cigarettes from India," said one of the two persons, both of whom spoke under condition of anonymity.

If the government issues an ordinance, it will have to replace it with a bill in the next session of Parliament.

The proposal to ban the battery-operated products was part of the ‘first 100 days’ agenda’ of the Narendra Modi government, the deadline for which is 7 September.

In a draft cabinet note, the health ministry proposed jail of up to one year and a fine of 1 lakh for first-time offenders violating the law, and up to three years and 5 lakh for repeat offenders. Mint has seen a copy of the note.

According to government data, more than 460 e-cigarette brands are available in India, with various configurations of nicotine delivery and in over 7,700 flavours. These devices do not burn tobacco leaves, but use a heating element to turn a liquid nicotine solution into vapours, which the user inhales. E-cigarettes are not licenced products in India and have made their way into the country illegally. Marketed as a product that can help smokers quit, e-cigarettes have also become a fashion statement among young tobacco users. The health ministry now wants to ban its manufacture, import and sale in India.

The health ministry says chemicals used in e-cigarettes as solvents are hazardous and could prove 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, which is the main ingredient of e-cigarttes and its chemicals derivatives in extracted chemical form are highly addictive and poisonous and have a potential to cause death even in small quantities," a health ministry document on e-cigarettes said.

Under the existing Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, the government cannot ban these products, but only regulate their sale. This put the government in a dilemma over the legal provisions it would have to invoke to ban e-cigarettes. Finally, experts at a drug consultative committee meeting on 1 June concluded that e-cigarettes and other such devices would fall under the definition of “drug" under Section 3(b) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 (DCA), and therefore should be banned under Section 26 (A) of DCA.

E-cigarettes are a cause of concern abroad too, with both the US Food and Drug Administration and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) working to investigate recent incidents of severe respiratory disease associated with use of e-cigarettes.

The CDC is investigating whether illnesses may be linked to specific devices, ingredients or contaminants in the devices, or substances associated with e-cigarette product use, with the FDA’s assistance. In fact, the CDC on 30 August issued a health advisory recommending that if people are concerned about specific health risks, they should consider refraining from the use of e-cigarette products.


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