Govt bans e-cigarettes amid global concern over health risks

India became the latest country to ban electronic cigarettes only days after Juul Labs Inc.’s products vanished from online Chinese marketplaces, signaling that Asian nations may be no refuge for the industry from an escalating crackdown in the U.S.

The Narendra Modi-led government announced an executive order Wednesday banning the sale and production of all e-cigarettes, echoing growing concerns worldwide over health risks associated with the smokeless nicotine devices popular with teenagers.

“Why are we debating if it’s more harmful or less? It is harmful. It is addictive,” said Preeti Sudan, health secretary in the Indian government. “The entire next generation will be going down the drain if we don’t control it now.”

Despite increasing global curbs on vaping, some nations view e-cigarettes as viable alternatives to smoking, a leading cause of preventable death. And though cigarette companies are getting into the electronic nicotine-delivery business -- including most notably a nearly $13 billion investment in Juul by Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc. -- a vaping health scare could cause sales of the tobacco giants’ most important products to jump.

Shares of cigarette makers in India gained on news of the ban.

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to “do something very, very strong” after the recent outbreak of a mysterious lung disease linked to vaping that has killed six people in the U.S. and afflicted hundreds of others. Lawmakers in the U.S. are also investigating the marketing of Juul, America’s top-selling e-cigarette brand.
U.S. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, told Juul Chief Executive Officer Kevin Burns in a letter dated Tuesday that the company had failed to produce all the documents requested by a House Oversight Committee and that further delay could result in the company receiving a subpoena.

Juul only started selling its nicotine vaporizers online in China last week. Its official online stores disappeared on Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s Tmall and JD.com Inc. by Tuesday, prompting speculation that official action may be on the way.

Juul wasn’t given a reason for why its products were pulled, according to a person familiar with the matter, but said in a statement it wants to make them available again.

No Reasons Given

The latest developments in India and China come as a blow to vaping companies that were setting their sights on Asia, where 65% of the world’s cigarettes are sold, as increased pressure in the U.S. forces them to look for growth elsewhere. India alone has 266.8 million tobacco users, according to a WHO factsheet.

It isn’t clear if China plans to ban or enforce stricter scrutiny of e-cigarettes or vaping devices. The country’s National Health Commission -- a body responsible for health and sanitation -- in July announced it was devising legislation for such products, arguing the “hazards of e-cigarettes should be highly valued.”

The Chinese health commission also said labels describing nicotine concentration on many such products are vague, and can lead to excessive consumption by users.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has campaigned and given money in support of a ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco.

Some nations, however, view vaping as a lesser evil than smoking.

The public health officials in the U.K., the biggest market in Europe for the products, endorse vaping as a way to wean people off smoking -- the prevailing view across Europe, where authorities are more sanguine about the effects of vaping.

E-cigarettes allow users to satisfy their cravings by inhaling vaporized nicotine rather than tobacco smoke. Their popularity has soared in recent years driven by candy-like flavorings, sleek devices and savvy marketing.

The U.S. Surgeon General called it an “epidemic,” after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that 5 million American kids said they’ve vaped this year. The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating the safety of e-cigarettes after reports of seizures.