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E-cigarettes: What are they, why they were banned, and why it is difficult to ban traditional cigarettes

It was a good decision to ban e-cigarette before it became difficult to do it, before the industry developed any serious clout in the country

The Union government on Wednesday banned e-cigarettes in India, citing health risk to youths and children. The cabinet approved an ordinance making the production, manufacturing, import, export, transport, sale, distribution or advertisements of e-cigarettes a cognizable offence.

16 states and 1 union territory had already banned e-cigarettes in the year 2018, following an advisory by the central government. They include Punjab, Karnataka, Mizoram, Kerala, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Puducherry, Rajasthan, Meghalaya, Odisha and Nagaland.

E-cigarette or electronic cigarette is a small electronic device which is used as an alternative to traditional cigarette. They are the most common form of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS). It is a handheld battery power vaporiser which produces an aerosol or vapour by heating a liquid, and that vapour is inhaled. This provides an experience similar to smoking cigarettes, but without burning tobacco.

An e-cigarette is made up of a mouthpiece, a cartridge where the e-liquid is stored, a heating element or atomiser, a microprocessor, a battery, and some may have a LED to simulate the burning of a cigarette. There are some mechanical cigarettes also which do not include any electronic and is activated by a mechanical switch. The atomiser heats and vaporises the liquid solution, a wicking material carries the vapour to the mouthpiece through which it is inhaled by the user. Some devices have a push button to take a puff, while others are automatic which have sensors to detect inhaling and activate the atomiser.

e-cigarettes in various shapes

The liquid used in e-cigarettes generally contain propylene glycol, glycerine, nicotine, flavourings, additives, and various amounts contaminants. E-cigarettes liquids are available in various flavours, and the various formulations of the liquid is are produced. According to a WHO report in 2014, almost 8,000 different flavours were available in the market.

Since its introduction in 2003, the e-cigarette market has expanded rapidly. They have become extremely popular among teens and youths, contributed by attractive advertisement, easy availability, variety in flavours, and the belief that they are safer than cigarettes. E-cigarettes were even promoted as a way to quit smoking.

e-cigarettes also come disguised as various objects like pen, flash drive, lipstick etc, making it easy for use by teens undetected

As most e-cigarette formulations contain nicotine, this had triggered concern that e-cigarettes will lead to nicotine addiction, and resulting in same health risks as cigarettes. Nicotine is highly addictive drug, and it is equally harmful whether it comes from burning tobacco or heating a liquid.

E-cigarette formulations also contain various kinds of additives and flavours, which pose additional health risks. Some formulations also have been found to contain known carcinogens and toxic chemicals. Dangerous metal particles also may get inhaled from the heating element and the body of the device itself. The devices contain toxic elements like nickel, chromium, cadmium etc, and their particles can get mixed with the aerosol inhaled by the ‘smoker’. E-cigarettes can also be used to inhale other narcotic substances, posing another risk.

Due to the potential health risks of e-cigarettes, many countries have regulated it, and some have banned it. Several countries like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Singapore, Uruguay etc have banned it. Japan, Australia, Canada and few others have highly restricted it. In many other countries, including UK and US, only adults can buy e-cigarettes. The EU limits e-cigarette advertisement, and has ordered reduction in level of nicotine and flavours used. In some US states, flavoured formulations have been banned, as it has been found that various flavours make them attractive for non-smokers, which in turn make them addicted to nicotine and convert them into smokers.

The notification issued by government says that while e-cigarettes are promoted as safer alternatives to cigarettes, they actually induce non-smokers, especially teens and youths, towards nicotine use, which leads to addiction and use of conventional tobacco products.

The health risks of e-cigarettes are no longer a matter of debate, and the decision to ban it can’t be questioned. But this raises another question, why ban it when the traditional cigarettes are still allowed? This was asked by many on social media after the decision of government of India was announced. Some people argued why ban it when it can be taxed heavily like cigarettes.

Some people also wondered if the cigarette manufacturers and the tobacco lobby, including tobacco farmers, are behind the decision. The share prices of cigarette manufacturers indeed went up today after the decision was announced.

The decision to ban e-cigarettes will restart the debate on banning cigarettes, and indeed it seems puzzling why government banned e-cigarettes citing health effects while continuing to allow the sale of cigarettes.

Although it is true that government earns huge revenue from cigarettes due to high taxes on it, it is unlikely that they are not banned due to the taxes. The government also spends huge amount of money in medical treatments of diseases arising out of tobacco consumption, which probably sets off the tax earned on cigarettes. Tobacco inhaling leads to various diseases like heart ailment, cancer, stroke etc, and many people suffering from such conditions avail treatment at government run hospitals.

Currently, most e-cigarettes are imported in India, and the ban will not affect any manufacturing, although it will have an effect on the traders. While only importers and retailers will be affected, any ban on cigarettes will have much wider implication, as lakhs of people are involved in tobacco farming, and work in cigarette manufacturing units. Cigarettes also earn export revenue, which is not the case with e-cigarettes.

Although it has been alleged, it is unlikely that the Modi government came under the pressure of cigarette manufacturers to ban e-cigarette. The government has taken several steps which were not liked by corporates, so it is unlikely for the govt to blink in front of cigarette companies. But the cigarette companies are not the only ones associated with the larger tobacco industry, it also includes the tobacco farmers and the unorganised sector involved in the beedi industry. And this is where it becomes very difficult to take a decision when the livelihood of a large number of farmers and small scale industries are at stack.

In fact, just recently the Bhartiya Kisan Union had requested the government to ban e-cigarettes in the country. In a letter sent to agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and commerce minister Piyush Goyal on Monday, the union had said that if e-cigarettes are allowed in India, it will have a devastating effect on the tobacco farmers in India. They have said that e-cigarette companies who are trying to open shops in India are from outside India and they do not procure tobacco in India.

They had said that the extraction of nicotine from tobacco is done outside India, using tobacco grown outside India. The raw material used in the production of e-cigarette formulation is tobacco dust, which is produced during the processing of chewing and beedi tobacco, no fresh tobacco is used to extract nicotine, BKU had said.

Another important factor behind many countries prioritising ban on e-cigarettes is that, globally the use of cigarettes is coming down among teens and youths, while e-cigarettes are extremely popular among them. Due to declining popularity combined with increasing anti-tobacco campaign and rising awareness about tobacco-related diseases, cigarette sale has declined in recent years, which is a trend seen in globally too. On the other hand, the sale of e-cigarette is steadily rising, and it is more popular among teens and youths.

On the argument of why not tax e-cigarettes at high rates also like cigarettes to discourage its use, it has been seen that high taxes do not hamper the sale of cigarettes. Taxes are raised regularly on cigarettes, but it has not resulted in a decrease in cigarette consumption. Therefore, it was unlikely that imposing high taxes would have discouraged the use of e-cigarettes.

Banning cigarettes will be a highly controversial decision, and will face massive protests from farmers and other stakeholders, and that is the reason perhaps why no government has not banned it yet. As no such opposition is expected from banning e-cigarettes, it was an easier decision to take. It was a good decision to ban e-cigarette before it became difficult to do it, before the industry developed any serious clout in the country. And this is not the case with only India, cigarettes are not completely banned in any country, while several have banned e-cigarettes.

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Raju Das
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