Bangladesh is close to imposing a total ban on nicotine vapes, which have helped tens of millions of people around the world quit smoking. The planned ban reportedly also includes oral nicotine pouches, another important harm reduction alternative in South Asia.
If confirmed, it will be another major blow to harm reduction, when several Asian governments have enacted similar prohibitions.
With almost 170 million people, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. And it’s a major tobacco consumer. A national smoking rate of over 20 percent—often traditional bidi, as well as cigarettes—contains a large gender split. While very few Bangladeshi women smoke, the rate is about 40 percent among men. The country suffers over 160,000 smoking-related deaths each year.
Under the proposed law, anyone caught vaping will be subject to a fine of 5,000 taka (about $46).
The government has been considering plans for a vape ban since 2019, when a minister cited the so-called “EVALI” outbreak in the United States—blamed on, but not caused by, nicotine vapes—as justification.
A draft amendment to Bangladesh’s Smoking and Using of Tobacco Products (Control) Act has now been prepared by the Health Ministry and reviewed by the cabinet. This was ordered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina—ostensibly to bring the country’s law in line with the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and in pursuit of the government’s plan to make Bangladesh “tobacco-free” by 2040.
The final step in changing the law will be approval by parliament, where Hasina’s Awami League party has a huge majority.
Under the proposed law, anyone caught vaping, whether or not it involves nicotine, will be subject to a fine of 5,000 taka (about $46).
Sales, production, import, export, storage and transportation of vapes would also be banned. Penalties for those activities would start at a heavier fine, three months’ incarceration, or both—with sentences rising for larger-scale activity or repeat convictions.
“Should I go back to smoking cigarettes? I think this ban will be very counterproductive and harmful for those like me.”
One of the people who would be directly impacted is Ishraq Dhaly, 42, who works for an advertising agency in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. He smoked cigarettes heavily for much of his adult life. But unlike most people who smoke in the country, he then discovered vapes. He said these allowed him to quit smoking “instantly,” and he has vaped exclusively for the past two years.
“With the possible ban looming in the horizon, I am utterly confused on what to do,” Dhaly told Filter. “Should I go back to smoking cigarettes? I think this ban will be very counterproductive and harmful for those like me.”
The proposed amendment also includes bans of flavors in tobacco products, increasing the existing fine for smoking in public places, and further penalties for unlicensed tobacco sales. Marketing of heated tobacco products, another harm reduction option, and of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is already prohibited in Bangladesh.
Prominent organizations like the Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA) have supported the vape ban. Dr. Ehteshamul Haque Chowdhury Dulal, BMA’s secretary general, has equated vapes with cigarettes. And Hossain Ali Khondakar, coordinator of the National Tobacco Control Cell under the Health Ministry, said, “The ministry believes that e-cigarettes and vaping are as harmful as cigarettes.”
Farhan described how misinformation has led to lawmakers in his country taking this path.
“A ban on vaping devices will have disastrous consequences for people trying to quit smoking cigarettes,” Nafis Farhan told Filter.
Farhan is a member of Voice of Vapers Bangladesh, an organization seeking to educate people on nicotine vapes for tobacco harm reduction. He described how misinformation has led to lawmakers in his country taking this path.
Continued high smoking prevalence in Bangladesh, he said, “can be attributed to the limited availability of cessation tools, such as vapes.”
“An alternative and more effective course of action would be the strategy embraced by the UK government, which could involve implementing regulations rather than an outright ban,” he continued. Earlier this year, the United Kingdom announced a scheme to offer free vape kits to one million people who smoke, to promote switching to a much safer alternative.
In contrast, Farhan continued, “Complete prohibition on any substance always leads to the creation of a black market, leading to unregulated products, which eventually have severe health consequences for the consumer.”
Other countries’ experiences are illustrative.
In India, a recent survey covering six states reported that vapes were still easily available online after being banned in 2019. Another study concluded that “despite a complete ban, young people are still able to access e-cigarettes in India.”
Although Thailand has among the harshest penalties in the world for those caught vaping, with fines and a potential prison sentence of up to five years, people there still vape—and are often extorted by police for doing so.
“Policymakers should stop stealing the time and opportunity from those who struggle to quit smoking.”
Media reporting from Singapore has also alleged “rampant” youth vaping amid the country’s total ban.
Michael Landl, director of the World Vapers Alliance (WVA), told Filter that Bangladesh’s likely ban represents “a missed opportunity for harm reduction and a setback for public health.”
WVA Community Manager Liza Katsiashvili referenced Sweden, which is close to declaring itself “smoke-free” thanks to widespread uptake of snus, as an example of what happens when a country allows people to embrace tobacco harm reduction.
Criticizing Bangladesh’s impending prohibition, she told Filter that “policymakers should stop stealing the time and opportunity from those who struggle to quit smoking.”