Why India’s Future “Will Not Be Vape-Free”

    Vapes have taken JK on a remarkable journey. From smoking multiple packs of cigarettes a day, he switched suddenly and entirely. He helped pioneer India’s first organized vapers group. In reaction to the country’s prohibitionist stance, he became a licensed online vendor, then an e-liquid connoisseur. And amid the country’s ban on sales and possession of vapes, he continues to preach their harm reduction efficacy with evangelical zeal.

    I met up with JK, who preferred to go by those initials due to India’s laws, at my hotel in Mumbai, after a mutual acquaintance put us in touch during my visit. He came across as well-mannered and unassuming, but incredibly eloquent. He immediately started talking about his history with tobacco. “I was a hardcore smoker up until 2010, when I was 44. I was smoking 72 cigarettes a day!”

    But JK didn’t start by smoking cigarettes. It was bidis: the rolls of unprocessed tobacco, wrapped in leaves, that are commonly smoked in rural India.

    JK grew up in South Mumbai. His father, a rather stressed engineer, smoked bidis, and JK would see him become more likable and less agitated after he had taken his first drag. The message to a 12-year-old JK was clear: Smoking made you feel better. “I used to take the butt ends that my father put out and smoke them,” he told Filter.

    As a college student in Mumbai, he replaced bidis with commercial cigarettes. His first brand was called Charms, which JK remembers like an old friend. “It was blue, like denim, also the texture of denim. This was in the ‘80s, Levi’s and Wrangler jeans were big, and Charms were the jeans of cigarettes.”

    As JK went on to describe his second brand, Gold Flake Kings, his recollection involved such obvious pleasure that I had to remind myself he’d actually quit.

    JK smoked more and more heavily during his engineering career. It reached a point where his then-wife threatened divorce, telling him, as he recalled, “Me and the kids do not want this in our lives! It is your choice to smoke—not ours!”

    Even his beloved golden retriever had a problem with his constant smoking. “As soon as I picked up my packets of cigarettes, the dog would leave the room.”

    Despite all this, and despite multiple previous attempts, it seemed highly unlikely that JK would quit. Instead, he sought to compromise by cordoning off sections of his house in Mumbai as smoking areas.I obviously love my family, but the thought of giving up my precious cigarettes … My soul belonged to cigarettes.”

    “I became an ex-smoker in 30 minutes flat.”

    Learning to “beat the system” in order to smoke had also become a habit for JK, who described smoking undetected in places like airplane toilets.

    It was in 2010 that JK’s then-wife, a surgeon, returned from a continuing medical education meeting and told him of a new “electronic cigarette” that could give him a hit of nicotine without the toxicity of smoking.

    Upon trying it,”I became an ex-smoker in 30 minutes flat.”

    “A revelation,” JK called it. “Considering the amount of effort I had put into trying to get rid of these cancer sticks, it was a gift from God! I was getting the same satisfaction I was getting from cigarettes with the vape.”

    His dog also approved, and would stay in the room after JK switched.

    To help me appreciate just how miraculous this was, JK regaled me with stories of how far he had gone in previous quit-attempts. One was in hospital, where he intended to go cold-turkey, but ended up bribing staff to get him cigarettes—which he smoked through a pipe, fed through an open window, while standing on a stool in the hospital bathroom. Other attempts involved therapy, but none stuck.

    “They would come back after trying vape and say, ‘Keep my packet of cigarettes!’ And I would feel on top of the world.”

    After his breakthrough, JK soon found that he felt healthier, able to be active and work out in ways he couldn’t while he was smoking. He also became a man on a mission, with what he described as a “moral duty” to spread the good news that vapes could help even “a hardcore smoker like me.”

    India suffers over 900,000 smoking-related deaths every year.

    He started with his circle of friends who smoked, but soon widened his efforts—even speaking with strangers smoking on the street.

    “My approach would be very methodical and logical,” he said. “I would ask why they’re smoking. The answer would always be, ‘to relieve tension.’ I would explain the vape would do the same thing, but it will cause you less harm—which you will notice within a week. You will regain your stamina. You will regain your sense of taste—your food will be tasty. Your sense of smell will come back.”

    JK’s sincerity won converts. “They would come back after trying vape and say, ‘Keep my packet of cigarettes!’ And I would feel on top of the world.”

    People he’d helped switch would then bring friends to him who were still smoking, and so it continued.

    Political circumstances shaped JK’s next steps. He was vaping imported products, but in 2014, he found that customs was starting to make it difficult for e-liquids to come through.

    India’s vape ban was still five years away, but the harbingers were already apparent, he said. “This is how my online vape business started.”

    JK set himself up, quite legally, to import vapes and e-liquids. He obtained the relevant license, checked all the legal boxes and advertised on Facebook. At its peak, his business had 10,000 customers across India. By then, it had gone from being a one-man show to employing six staff.

    In 2015, JK also set up “Vape Meet,” an online space for people to share information and experiences. He became president of the Western Vape Vendors Association. And then there was his work with the Association of Vapers India (AVI), a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. In 2018, for example, he went to the city of Jaipur to present opposition from people who vape, as the government of the northern state of Rajasthan planned a ban.

    “There’s a much safer way for me to have my fix of nicotine. But the government is forcing me and others to go back to cigarettes!”

    In 2019, the national government banned vapes in what JK called a “knee-jerk” reaction to the “EVALI” outbreak in the United States. EVALI was belatedly linked to vitamin E acetate present in unregulated THC cartridges, rather than to nicotine vapes, but the damage was done.

    “A unilateral decision, without discussion in parliament, was made to ban vapes,” JK said. “In a period of 90 days it was made into a law. Why? Because of the teen deaths that happened in the US.”

    The Indian government “conveniently closed its ears” to what really caused these lung injuries, he noted. And orders to his vape business immediately fell, from 1,000 a month to just 80. “My customers were all scared: ‘What will happen now?’ I told them, as long as I’m alive, I will try to help them out. I believe in what I do.”

    Unable to continue importing vaping products, JK had by then started making his own e-liquids, which was unregulated but not illegal at the time. These included a flavor known as paan—an Asian mouth freshener made from various natural ingredients, sometimes including tobacco. He’s fastidious about getting flavors and aromas right, practicing flavor-extraction based on his research and experimentation.

    All the same, many of JK’s customers returned to smoking after the national vape ban, he said.

    “I tried everything under the sun to quit smoking, without success,” he reflected. “Finally, I found something and my health has improved. There’s a much safer way for me to have my fix of nicotine. But the government is forcing me and others to go back to cigarettes!”

    In holding the government responsible, JK is well aware that it’s a major shareholder in ITC Limited, India’s biggest tobacco company. “There’s a direct link to cancer from cigarettes—how can you sell them but ban vape?”

    He also condemned the government’s growing restrictions on studying tobacco harm reduction. “Is this the approach of the establishment towards something that’s progressive and good, and can be scientifically proven? They banned research! If anything is to be banned, you actually do some research on it.”

    “Globally, harm reduction is happening. India is the story of tomorrow.”

    JK’s passion often threatened to overflow during our conversation, for which he sometimes apologized. But his portrayal of lives needlessly at risk because of the ban made his emotion readily understandable.

    Nonetheless, he’s essentially an optimist about the long-term direction of travel. Ban or no ban, India’s future will not be vape-free, he said. A “tsunami” has already begun, which cannot be turned back, and India has a surging illicit vape market.

    “Globally, harm reduction is happening,” he emphasized. “Cigarettes are an outdated way of getting nicotine.”

    He additionally wonders if profit motives will shift the country’s direction. “The vape industry has the capability of becoming a trillion dollar industry in two fiscal years,” he said. “India knows this and wants to have it and control it for itself.”

    Citing ITC’s dominant position in the tobacco market and the Indian government’s part-ownership, JK speculated that the ban might play the role of “clearing the table” for future legal-vape developments. “India is one of the biggest marketplaces in the world. India is the story of tomorrow.”

    But with vapes still banned, what does his own role look like?

    “As far as this movement is concerned, I’m here until the end, irrespective of the outcome. I’m a vape advocate and I vape, and I will declare it to anyone. Do you want to put me in jail? Then do it! I will find my own way and means to get my vape in jail. I will have no problem with that.”

    The work he does for people’s right to access safer nicotine products is just a “small contribution,” he said modestly. “If you look at ants, it is never the job of the one ant to get [the whole] job done. An ant does a little, which builds up to a movement. We all do our bits. Change is coming.”



    Photograph of Mumbai (cropped) by u/AffectionateMind26 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales.

      Kiran’s fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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