In late 2019, the Indian government issued a ban on vaping products. The ordinance, originally announced by the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, and passed by parliament months later, not only disallows the sale, manufacturing, and distribution of e-cigarettes, but also their importation, exportation, transport, storage and advertisement.
Sitharaman couched the move with the usual context—youth were experimenting with them too much, or at least would do so—and even said that “unfortunately, e-cigarettes got promoted initially as a way in which people can get out of the habit of smoking cigarettes.” Much evidence shows that vaping is far safer than smoking, and that many people successfully use vapes to quit deadly cigarettes.
India’s ban carries heavy consequences, too. A first-time violation can bring up to a year in prison and $1,400 fine; additional convictions can lead all the way up to five years in prison and a $7,000 fine.
The blow to global tobacco harm reduction can hardly be overstated.
Prospects for tobacco harm reduction (THR) have since looked bleak. And the full-on prohibition seems to get worse and worse: By February 2020, for example, India’s aviation authority barred passengers from carrying vaping products on airplanes; an Indian citizen, therefore, cannot legally go to a country where vapes are available and return with a stash.
The blow to global THR can hardly be overstated. Around 12 percent of the world’s billion smokers lived in India as of 2018, which amounts to about 14 percent of the nation’s population—or 120 million smokers. But once you consider tobacco use in any form, like the ubiquitous bidis (unprocessed tobacco rolled in leaves) or gutkha (chewing tobacco), India’s tobacco-use prevalence reaches all the way to 29 percent, making it only second to China as the globe’s biggest consumer.
Indian consumer advocates have been fighting the ban any way they can—lobbying the government, educating tobacco users, and exploring whatever legal options are available. One of the most prominent among them is Jagannath Sarangapani, an entrepreneur living in Hyderabad. He kicked a 40-a-day smoking habit when he switched to vaping, which informs his passion. A member of the Association of Vapers India (AVI), he also sits on the board of INNCO (International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations), supporting the rights and well-being of those who wish to use safer nicotine alternatives.
Filter spoke to Sarangapani about the current state of THR in India and what, if anything, lies ahead.
Kiran Sidhu: Could you describe your personal journey in tobacco harm reduction?
Jagannath Sarangapani: I used to be a smoker, a habit that I picked up late in my life. I was around 27, 28 years old. I was soon smoking 40 cigarettes a day; if I was going out and drinking, the number was far higher. A friend and I kept on talking about quitting together, so I started with nicotine gum. It never worked. Then I tried patches, which I didn’t like, but it brought down the number of cigarettes I smoked to one a day—then I went straight back to 40. I tried many things!
“The day I received the vape was the day I stopped smoking.”
On my birthday in 2015, my friend and I got serious about quitting, and we came across vaping. That night we ordered the kits. The day I received the vape was the day I stopped smoking: I went from smoking 40 cigarettes to zero cigarettes. This was seven years ago. No one actually introduced me to vaping; it was just my own investigation. So my friends and I started a vaping group. We would advise people, using our own personal knowledge on vaping, on their journey to quit smoking.
Since vaping, I am so much healthier. I can taste my food better, and I no longer eat so much salt. I don’t have to take the blood pressure tablets I used to take, and I can run 5 kilometers.
Can you tell us a bit about the prevalence and culture of different forms of tobacco use in India?
Cigarette smokers in India are actually a small percentage. The big thing here is bidi, rolled leaves containing tobacco mixed with other rubbish. The bidi is prevalent in rural India and within the middle-lower classes. We also have snuff users and the chewing of tobacco—these are the big ones. If you look at the stats, you’ll see cigarette smokers are a small percentage. In India, cigarettes are taxed on the size, so the shorter the cigarette, the lower the tax.
How did your involvement in national THR advocacy begin?
In 2019, we heard there might be a possible ban on vaping. By that time our vaping groups had a little more structure; we were better organized. We decided the ban needed a serious response, so together with the AVI (Association of Vapers India), we put together a nationwide protest involving six cities across the country. We had placards with messages like “End Vape Ban.” This was all over social media and covered by the press too. We used hashtags #RegulateDontBan and #VapingSavesLives.
In your opinion, what’s behind India’s vape ban?
The previous union minister for health and family welfare, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, was very anti-tobacco, which is fine, but he figured vaping was the worst thing available. At the time, he was also the chairperson of the executive board of the World Health Organization. It was a knee-jerk reaction to reports that Juul, one of the world’s leading vape brands, was entering the Indian market. ITC [the biggest cigarette-maker in India] undoubtedly felt threatened. And then there was the “EVALI” scare, which was misrepresented by almost every news desk around the world.
“Can you believe a life insurance company owns a stake in a cigarette company?”
The government talked about teen vaping—about how the ban was protecting the youth. But children are curious. How many kids have tried smoking! Consider this: For a kid to buy a vape they need 2,500 rupees [about $31]. That’s a lot of money. But you can buy a single cigarette for 15 rupees [about 19 cents].
A stake in ITC is held by the national insurance and the general insurance of India, both of which are owned by the government. Can you believe a life insurance company owns a stake in a cigarette company? The day the ban was announced, stock prices of ITC shot up, which wouldn’t have happened without the ban. It can lead you to infer that the ban was pushed by tobacco companies who felt threatened.
What are the harms of banning vaping in India?
It’s really sad. I know so many vapers who have now gone back to smoking. They do not want the hassle of dealing with the black market to buy a vape. As you have to get vapes from the black market, there is no regulation. You can’t be sure of what you’re getting.
The ban is a human rights issue. I have a right to choice, autonomy, privacy and health. All these are being invaded. And then there’s the right to information. And India does have a Right to Information Act. This is being diluted. The government has banned research on tobacco harm reduction. At the same time, they’re also saying that there’s not enough research and evidence in THR products!
What are vaping groups doing to campaign for change?
We have the AVI, which I am a member of. We try to challenge the government. We engage with politicians, both the ruling and opposition parties. We write to them on the developments in science and hope we will be able to raise enough awareness to then be able to have a meaningful debate on THR. Our efforts reached a crescendo during the anniversary of the vape barn and World Vape Day.
Does the current legal status of vapes pose specific difficulties for THR advocacy efforts?
We have a serious challenge with this. I still get asked by people where they can get a vape from. They want to stop smoking. I can tell them about vaping, inform them and discuss it—but I can’t tell them where they can get it from.
“I keep lozenges and nicotine strips in my pocket just in case my vape gets confiscated.”
The average person in India has very little knowledge of THR. The ban suddenly told the nation there was something called “vape.” There was just a small number of people who knew about vaping and were transitioning from smokers to vapers. We really don’t have many alternatives. We have lozenges and nicotine strips that you put on your tongue. These products are finding their way to medical stores. I keep these in my pocket just in case my vape gets confiscated.
Many doctors have a perception problem. They think nicotine causes cancer. They fail to understand that it is the tar and the smoke. And people, of course, trust their doctors. We have AHRER (Association for Harm Reduction Education & Research), a body made of medical professionals that talk about harm reduction. Dr. Shree Sucharitha does remarkable things for raising awareness for tobacco harm reduction. Other doctors are blind to the alternatives. It’s like they’re putting a paper bag over their head.
How do you see things moving forward? Is there any hope that the situation will improve?
We need to look at what other countries are doing. We need to engage internationally. The United Arab Emirates had banned vaping. They have now reversed the ban.
The Indian Council of Medical Research put together some research papers where they cherry-picked the information and research that they published. That needs to be challenged. The only way to challenge this is through the courts. Thankfully, the judiciary is still largely independent, so we do have hope there.
Photograph courtesy of Jagannath Sarangapani
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from Juul Labs, Inc. Both INNCO and The Influence Foundation have received grants from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Filter’s Editorial Independence Policy applies.