The Union cabinet is likely to approve an ordinance prohibiting the manufacture and sale of e-cigarettes at a meeting on Wednesday, said two people aware of the matter.

The health ministry has proposed making the production, manufacturing, import, export, transport, sale, distribution or advertisements of e-cigarettes a cognizable offence, punishable with jail up to one year or fine up to 1 lakh or both for the first-time offenders, and jail of up to three years and fine up to 5 lakh for repeat offenders. According to a draft ordinance, the storage of e-cigarettes shall also be punishable with imprisonment up to six months or fine up to 50,000 or both. Mint has seen a copy of the draft ordinance.

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 to help smokers quit, and harmless than cigarettes. 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. Once the ordinance is issued, those holding e-cigarette stocks must declare and deposit stocks with 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.

Meanwhile, the Gujarat Tobacco Merchants Association (GTMA) and Gujarat Tobacco Growers & Merchants Association (GTGMA) have questioned the need for the haste in banning e-cigarettes, in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Bhikubhai N. Patel, president of GTMA said the ban will not serve any purpose except to encourage the black market and hurt the tobacco trade.

In August 2018, the health ministry issued an advisory restricting advertisements of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), commonly 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 the attorney general’s opinion, who suggested that the “order would not stand in the way of the promulgation of an ordinance".

A panel of ministers led by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman met a group of ministers last week to study the health ministry’s proposal to ban e-cigarettes through an ordinance and approved it, the first of the two persons cited above said. The panel includes ministers from commerce, health, agriculture, chemicals and petrochemicals, and food processing departments.

The ordinance will have to be replaced 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 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 the member countries to take appropriate steps including prohibiting these products," said the second person.

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," according to a health ministry document on e-cigarettes.

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