Our Ban Has Failed: Time for India to Regulate Vapes

    The first Indian state to ban vapes was Karnatataka, in 2016. The reason for this is that Karnataka, in the southwest, is our country’s largest producer of Virginia tobacco. The ban was a political ploy to get votes: “Vote for us and we’ll ban vapes, so you can keep your livelihood.”

    The second state was Rajasthan. In 2018, we at Association of Vapers India (AVI) were told that a committee of doctors had been set up in the northern state to look at the question and study e-cigarettes. My colleagues and I went to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, numerous times to try to meet with them.

    We would wait up to six hours outside boardrooms, but they would never meet us. Then, on the last day, they invited us in.

    They asked if I had my vape with me, so I showed it to them. And that was the first time they had seen a vape. They were supposed to be studying it!

    I don’t think vapes are banned because the government is worried about health. A lot of money is generated by cigarette sales.

    The ban was imposed that same day: May 31, or “World No Tobacco Day,” in 2019.

    It was later that year that the whole country followed suit.

    I don’t think vapes are banned because the government is worried about the health of the country, or even because of the pressure from the World Health Organization.

    A lot of money is generated by cigarette sales. India’s government holds big stakes in the country’s biggest tobacco company. And then there are tax revenues. A packet of cigarettes today costs around 350 rupees—from which 150 rupees will go to the government in tax.

    This steady income from smoking means the government is not truly interested in keeping people from smoking, and has no real smoking cessation plan: It’s “quit or die.”

    There was a government helpline for people who wanted to quit smoking. It would send you a text message that said, “Quit smoking; today is the day you quit”—and that’s it. No advice or support other than the text message.

    Before the ban, vapes weren’t regulated at all. But at AVI, we had our own guidelines for vendors. For example, requiring ID to prevent underage sales, and not overcharging customersvapes needed to be affordable.

    Even with a ban in place, vapes are freely available in India. You can ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to a shop that sells vape and he’ll take you to one of the paan or bidi stores.

    Back when I started vaping, there were around 100,000 vapers in India. The number has now grown to approximately 5-6 million—and is still growing.

    It is easy to ban something, but a different thing entirely to enforce a ban. To give you an example, in the state of Gujarat, alcohol has been banned since 1960. And due to illicit sales, the state has the country’s highest rate of alcohol consumption.

    A large unregulated market produces no tax revenue. It is because of this that I predict, perhaps in around three years, vapes will be made legally available in India.

    Bans do not work. The vape ban has reduced uptake of a lifesaving harm reduction option compared to if we had legal availability, but it has also made things worse in other ways.

    Vapes are now in the hands of illicit-market operators who often don’t care what they are selling, or how old their customers are. It can put women, especially, in vulnerable situations, when they have to meet vendors in secretive locations. And a large unregulated market produces no tax revenue to contribute to public expenditures.

    It is because of this last fact that I predict, perhaps in around three years, vapes will be made legally available in India.

    India has become a great manufacturing hub. We will manufacture our own vapes and send them out to the world, and the government will collect taxes.

    If that happens, it will follow years of shameful delay, when vapes are proven to be an effective smoking cessation method, and when India suffers over a million annual deaths related to tobacco use.

    If I could say one thing to the Indian government, it would be this: Regulate, don’t ban. Regulation will save lives and remove the harms of the illicit market. You will also make money from it. Regulate and don’t ban, and we will have a healthier India. 


    *As told to Kiran Sidhu.

    Photograph by Still Pixels via Pexels


    • Pratik is co-director of Association of Vapers India (AVI), a consumer-led nonprofit with no industry funding that defends the right of people who use tobacco to access harm reduction products. AVI aims to educate people about lower-risk options to give them the chance to lead healthier lives. Pratik himself gave up smoking with the help of vapes. He lives in Mumbai.

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