E-Cigarette Ban in India: How US hysteria, big tobacco led to a federal ban

On the 18th of September, The Union Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitaraman announced that there would be a blanket ban on e-cigarettes across the country in an announcement that left the youth of the country (supposedly the target of this ban) more confused than ever. Why? For starters, a supposed public health issue was dealt with by the finance minister of the country and not the health minister. 

More importantly, however, the decision came right around the corner of Juul’s official entry into the Indian market. India is a huge market with over 100 million smokers, the second largest in the world behind China. It’s also the third-largest tobacco producer in the world, with farmers who cultivate tobacco being an important vote bank for the leading BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, loosely translating to Indian People’s party). Therefore, it makes economic sense to ban e-cigarettes but not cigarettes. And the stock market showed as much, with stocks in the ITC and Godfrey Phillips increasing by up to 9% after the ban came into place. Sounds suspect to us!

But is there any weight to all the critics and naysayers that want the E-Cigarette ban to go ahead? Is it actually a health risk or is it just a premature overreaction?

Let’s look at the facts

While this article is about the E-cigarette ban in India, the ban came into place due to a rising number of cases of lung disease among vape users in the US, so we’ll look into this first. The US has seen around 450 cases of lung disease related to vaping over the summer, with the numbers rising with the days passing. There’s been no official federal ban that’s come into place, but New York became the second state in the country to ban vapes, and Donald Trump announced that a vape ban might be looked into seriously. The FDA urged the public to avoid THC based vape pens and to avoid all vapes that you find on the streets. Does this mean that vaping loose-leaf is incredibly dangerous? Well, yes and no.

bannin e-cigs india

India banned E-Cigarettes in a hasty decision inspired by US hysteria over rising vaping related illnesses and deaths. It’s likely that India banned e-ciggs to bolster big tobacco stock

How? Most THC based cartridges have an additive for thickening the THC solution (and in the black market, to make the product look more genuine than it is) called Vitamin E acetate. In all cases where there’s been a death or even development of lung diseases, all the vapes studied have had Vitamin E acetate in them. Vitamin E acetate is usually used for skin related products and there’s been no research to indicate that it’s harmful when ingested or applied externally. However, there are no conclusive results that indicate that it’s safe for inhaling as vapor. What most researchers can wager is that the acetate when turned to vapor is taken in, reaches the lungs but transforms back into oil form, coating the lungs, which is incredibly dangerous as our lungs can’t take in oil.

There’s an entire article about the issues with Vitamin E acetate, why the black market gobbled it up and how the creator of the substance for vapes didn’t know the harm it would cause. You can find it here

Another very important detail to focus at is this: While the FDA has urged citizens to avoid THC vapes and vapes on the streets, the CDC hasn’t made any such announcement, with its deputy director of research, Brian King, going as far as to say that the sudden rise in cases of lung disease could mean that there’s “something new is going on”. This makes sense because all the cases of vaping related deaths and illnesses have almost entirely been found only in the US. The EU has stricter norms and regulations for vaping related products, so there aren’t many cases in Europe, or anywhere, really.

So why did India ban E-Cigarettes? Because Indian policy always revolves around “better to be safe than sorry”. Many jurisdictional moves in the country are a result of the government being scared of the consequences. In this case, it’s very puzzling to see the Indian Government react this way as there aren’t a lot of young adults who use vapes in the country: youngsters vaping has been at the center of the issue in North America, so the reaction, while not entirely valid, is understandable.

Pesticides in illicit vape cartridges

The black market for vape cartridges isn’t regulated in any way whatsoever, which allows illicit vendors to accept products using questionable and sometimes illegal production methods and sell it for high margins. This has led to a slew of issues, from pesticides being found at high levels, diluents and thickeners being used to make products look more genuine. What’s extremely worrying about this scenario is that the pesticides, which are used in cannabis products to help growth, are concentrated due to the process of turning loose leaf into oil. This concentration process also leads to cyanide being brewed, which is extremely dangerous and lethal in many cases. None of these chemicals, diluents or thickeners were found in the state-regulated dispensaries that sell genuine vape cartridges.

e cigs ban india
Thickening agents like Vitamin E acetate and other pesticides have been found mostly in illicit cartridges, which could be a reason for a sudden spike in vaping related deaths/illnesses

Therefore, we urge our readers to please avoid vape cartridges from the black market and stick to products found in dispensaries and other authorized retailers.

Bans NEVER work

One of the main reasons why there’s been a massive push for bans within the public and political sphere is because flavored vapes and e-cigs are enticing to children. While flavors like cotton candy and fruit loops can most definitely be flavors that attract kids, this doesn’t mean that we ban vapes entirely because of some flavors. Vodka comes in flavors like green apple which could potentially be enticing to kids. Does that mean we ban vodka? Flavored vapes are more efficient in helping people kick their smoking habit, so phasing certain flavors out (like the ones that entice younger kids) would be a more pragmatic decision.

banning e-cigs
Vape bans can lead to an even graver public health issue as more and more people revert back to smoking cigarettes or even worse: people picking up smoking for the first time

What’s even more frustrating is that through all the bans we’ve seen in the past (especially cannabis), none of them have ever achieved what they set out to do: to protect society from the supposed harm that these substances cause. Reefer madness, the war on drugs in the 70s and 80s and the handling of the crack epidemic shows just how poorly bans have worked. 

Bans in India don’t work either

But since we’re looking at India, let’s look at its cannabis ban, which began in the 70s when the US pressured India to ban cannabis. India was hesitant, as there’s historical, cultural and religious context to India’s cannabis use. The ban went ahead anyway and loose-leaf continues to be one of the most consumed substances in India, especially among children, with a 3% use case for loose leaf. That’s an unusually high number that could at least partially be quelled by better regulation and laws (and legalization!). Loose leaf in the country is partially legalized in several states in the form of bhang and is not enforced properly (and it makes sense).

bann e cigs india

India has a long history of pot use that’s ingrained in the country’s cultures, religions, social life and youth. Saadu’s, or god-men, tend to smoke cannabis

In cases of E-Cigarettes, however, the government’s draconian mindset of taking away the opportunity of choice is not only anti-consumerism from an economic standpoint (it’s ironic too since there’s been a massive economic slowdown in India), it also takes away an arguably safer option for people who are addicted to nicotine (vapes have been found to be 95% safer than traditional cigarettes in various studies) and also pushes people towards using a more harmful substance (cigarettes) or illicit vapes that have a laundry list of pesticides, diluents and lethal chemicals added to make the product seem more genuine. With so much money being funneled into treating lung diseases in India, it’s upsetting and perplexing that the government went down this route on the basis of a minor scare. 

The scarier scenario: paan

What’s actually scary is that smoking isn’t even the most popular way of consuming tobacco in the country either, with a street-side and even packaged sweet snack called paan being more popular than smoking. Paan is popular in the country because of its distinct variety of flavors, ranging from cherry to spicy. Vape companies could target these users into using their much healthier alternatives (should there be strong rules and regulations in place). Paan claims a lot more lives than cigarettes, so this would make sense to pursue. 

india e-cigs

More than smoking, eating flavored tobacco in several forms is massively popular in India, taking many more lives than smoking. Flavored vapes could’ve worked in combating the purge of paan

However, this doesn’t seem likely. A more suitable and pragmatic approach would’ve been to increase regulations and improve social awareness campaigns: Cigarettes have never been banned and from 1965 - 2017, there’s been a 67% reduction in the number of people who smoke, none of which required a ban and was done with increased regulation, awareness campaigns and challenges to advertising cigarettes in the mainstream, which is how cigarettes became popular in the first place. 

With some hindsight, the Indian government will go back on its ban like the Canadian and Australian governments (fact check please). The likelihood of this is low, but one can hope.