“All cigarettes are equal; some cigarettes are more equal than others.”
This modified version of George Orwell’s oft-quoted line “all animals are equal; some animals are more equal than others” from his satirical masterpiece ‘Animal Farm’ outlines the Narendra Modi government’s approach in banning e-cigarettes in India. In the wake of a series of deaths linked to vaping in the US, the Government of India finally decides to ban e-cigarettes in the country. This came a day after New York became the second US state to prohibit the use of flavored e-cigarettes, with Michigan being the first one.
ENDS, in modern times, i.e. Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems has become one of the most efficient methods of delivering an end to the youth. For the uninitiated, ENDS products include various types of e-cigarettes and vapes, where tobacco or nicotine solution is heated to temperatures lower than cigarettes. They are usually battery-operated devices that emit doses of vaporized nicotine, or non-nicotine solutions, for the user to inhale. It aims to provide a similar sensation to inhaling tobacco smoke, without the tar and other harmful byproducts that are present in cigarette smoke.
E-cigarettes had been introduced in the market as a product aimed at reducing nicotine addiction, much like the other available products that help in reducing smoking. However, it seems that these e-cigarettes quietly made its way into the herd, like a wolf donning a sheepskin. Enticed by its colorful and attractive packaging and flavor the population has already become a slave to this addiction. Though manufacturers have promoted e-cigarettes as a harm-reducing product, at present, compared to nicotine patches and nicotine gum, there is limited evidence to support the claim that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking. In fact, it is actually increasing the users’ addiction with nicotine, much like that of Sherlock. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved e-cigarettes as an alternative to reduce smoking. One study found that though e-cigarettes led to a higher percentage of people quitting smoking, nearly 80% of quitters were still vaping. According to the World Health Organization, there has been a small but steady decrease in the estimated number of smokers globally, to just over one billion.
But it’s a different matter when it comes to vaping. The number of vapers has been increasing rapidly – from about seven million in 2011 to 41 million in 2018. Market research group Euromonitor estimates that the number of adults who vape will reach almost 55 million by 2021.
As if this is not enough, with the introduction of e-cigarettes, a new trend of dual users has emerged and is gaining quite a momentum, with the current figures narrowing down to 60%. This ban thus once implemented, will become immensely difficult for the smokers to follow through as they will start showing signs of withdrawal. Is that so? Is that what’s going to happen?
Another consequence that had not been predicted is that a percentage of smokers would consist of children. With flavoured e-cigarettes enticing children as a style statement, they too have come up on the charts as potential conventional smokers getting increasingly addicted to nicotine.
Interestingly, the government ban is only restricted to e-cigarettes. Citing reasons such as surge in health problems amongst the youth and children, increase in addiction and release of toxic chemicals in the environment, via the Prohibition of Electronic Cigarettes Ordinance, 2019, e-cigarette would be banned to the extent that its consumption, production, manufacturing, import, export, transport, sale, distribution, storage and advertisement would become illegal in India. The maximum punishment is a jail term of three years and a fine of Rs. 5 lakh. Once the ban is enforced in India, 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.
Asked whether the government would act similarly against traditional smoking, which is more injurious to health, environment minister Prakash Javedkar said the government runs awareness campaigns for that.
This biased approach has not gone down too well in some circles. Praveen Rikhy, the 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 the 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.”
Association of Vapers India (AVI) slammed the government decision and said it deprived 11 crore smokers in India of safer options. The move was “draconian and not based on scientific evidence”, said Samrat Chowdhery, the director of AVI, which claims to represent e-cigarette users. Another backlash that the government faced is the fact that it has a 28 percent stake in ITC Ltd, which has a near-monopoly in the country’s cigarette business.
Reacting strongly to the ban proposed by the Central Government, two separate challenges have been filed in West Bengal in the Kolkata High Court, by e-cigarette importer Plume Vapour and another company Woke Vapors, according to the court listing records publicly available online. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, one of India’s most prominent lawyers, who is representing Plume Vapour has been heard stating, “….This (ban) raises several important questions of constitutional law and is mindless, arbitrary and excessive.”
Although adverse effects of e-cigarettes are yet to be found, according to a white paper on e-cigarettes published by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), depending on the battery output voltage used, nicotine solvents can release varying amounts of potential carcinogens, such as acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and acetone. The liquid-vapourising solutions also contain “toxic chemicals and metals that can cause several adverse health effects, including cancers and diseases of the heart, lungs, and brain”. The ICMR report says, “At the population-level, the adverse health impact will outweigh any presumed benefit to individual cigarette smokers”.
Another reason behind this ban could be to reduce the economic spend on the import of this product. There are more than 400 brands in over 150 flavors, none of them currently manufactured in India.
Once again drawing an analogy from Animal Farm, we find George Orwell trying to clearly portray that the authority in power proclaims to treat everyone equally, but in reality, has an approach of according differential and preferential treatment.
In other words, though e-cigarettes have been banned citing the above-mentioned reasons, conventional cigarettes had earlier dominated the market, and after this product is retrenched, conventional cigarettes would reclaim its place, thus not causing much difference to the factors leading to deteriorating health amongst the youngsters. Awareness campaigns, citing the harmful effects of tobacco are not enough. They never have been enough. The initiative taken is well appreciated, however, the reason as to why the traditional product was not targeted and doesn’t seem likely to be considered as a potential problem in the future, is more of an excuse to shirk away from the responsibility to address this issue.
This is happening now. We must act on the root cause, not create products that are outlets of temporary relief. What causes one to smoke? What is the psyche involved?
Food for thought.
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