Cabinet decides to ban sale, production of e-cigarettes; ordinance soon

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, with Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, announces the ban on e-cigarettes at a press meet | Photo: Dalip Kumar
The Union Cabinet on Wednesday banned all forms of nicotine-based electronic cigarettes in the country, citing potential risks posed to the youth and students. An Ordinance will be issued soon to enforce the prohibition.

The promulgation of the Prohibition of Electronic Cigarettes Ordinance, 2019, would ban the production, manufacture, import, export, transport, sale, distribution and advertisement of e-cigarettes, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, adding that it could be passed into law in the upcoming winter session of Parliament.

Any violation will constitute a cognizable offence, punishable with imprisonment up to one year or a fine up to Rs 1 lakh or both for the first offence. Subsequent offences will attract imprisonment up to three years and a fine up to Rs 5 lakh.

The ban on electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), commonly known as e-cigarettes, was being pushed by the health ministry, with a panel led by Sitharaman deliberating on the matter over the past few months. However, the government has not made it clear why it intends to bring an Ordinance, generally issued as an emergency measure bypassing the legislature.

“Taking the Ordinance route itself was a clear evidence of the fundamental unsustainability of the government’s position. The health ministry ran with this proposal to ban on a selective basis, refusing to meet stakeholders, and was defeated in courts," Praveen Rikhy, convenor of Trade Representatives of ENDS in India (TRENDS), said.

The move is a setback for Juul, the American e-cigarette maker that controlled 75 per cent of the US market at the end of 2018 and had seen online sales rising in India. Tobacco major Phillip Morris also planned for a major release of its own devices in India. While the Centre has no estimation of the e-cigarette market size, it is estimated in the range of Rs 200-300 crore.

At a media briefing, Sitharaman said ENDS would be banned in all forms, including e-hookahs and vapes. “This was taken keeping in mind the impact that e-cigarettes have on the youth of today,” she said. She conceded that the data that the government had was largely based on the experience in the US. “The statistics that I have with me says that there has been a 77.8 per cent growth amongst school students. Even middle school students have taken to e-cigarettes. Among that group, the increase in usage is about 48.5 per cent. Many science journals have already said that nearly 3 million people are regular users of e-cigarettes. All this data is from the US,” she said.

While the government said seven deaths in the US had been tied to e-cigarettes in the US, it had not clarified if any deaths had occurred in India due to the devices. “It is believed that there are more than 400 brands, they come in over 150 flavours. E-cigarettes are not manufactured in India," Sitharaman said.

Back in August 2018, the health ministry had issued an advisory restricting advertisement of e-cigarettes. Subsequently, the central drug regulator had informed state drug controllers that no such products had received formal approval and retail sales needed to be stopped. 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.

“We have a comprehensive paper from the Indian Council of Medical Research. They have recommended a ban. The decision, before coming to the Cabinet, has gone through technical advisory committees. We have also received representations from esteemed medical institutions like IMA, AIIMS Jodhpur, Tata Memorial hospitals and others," Health Secretary Preeti Sudan said.

Banning of e-cigarettes has become a volatile political issue in the US and western Europe, where doctors, researchers and politicians have drawn up battle lines for and against banning the devices and 'vaping' in particular.