I remember fumbling with the lighter so much that a friend had to light my first smoke for me. I was in my early 20s and was throwing a party. Alcohol flowed and classic rock flooded through tinny speakers into my tiny one-bedroom apartment in Bangalore, India. I was on the hunt for new experiences. Cigarettes were uncharted territory, and I was invincible.
I believed I was channeling all of the sophistication of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as I choked my way through one cigarette, and then another, and then a few more, while we stayed up talking philosophy into the wee hours. Of course, I was too principled, smart and self-willed to ever be reliant on any kind of drug, nicotine included.
Ten years on, here I am, chain-smoking my way through my morning coffee. I currently get through a pack a day.
In all this time, the only thing that has ever stopped me from lighting up, often for months on end, has been my vape. It led me to believe that I had a chance of beating my addiction, and giving my lungs the best chance of recovery in the process.
And then, the Indian government banned vapes, and my dreams of being tobacco-free went up in smoke.
India’s Nicotine Culture—And My Family’s
Nicotine has long been widely consumed through various traditional forms of tobacco, many of them smokeless, across this country. Recent research reports that 34.6 percent of adults in India consume tobacco in some form, with 14 percent smoking it in one way or another. Filtered cigarettes are replacing the traditional bidi, hand-rolled in most parts of India. The country suffers over 1 million tobacco-related deaths each year.
Tobacco also has great economic importance here. Over 4.2 million hectares of farmland in India are dedicated to growing it. And the government owns a 28 percent stake in ITC, India’s dominant tobacco company.
I grew up in an upper-caste, middle-class family in Bangalore, at the heart of urban India, and I can trace a history of my family’s nicotine use within this culture through generations.
My great-grandfather would carry around snuff wrapped in the base of an Areca nut leaf, tucked into a little pouch in his dhoti. In my grandfather’s time, snuff was sold in small tin boxes, and he carried one around wherever he went, inhaling the powdered tobacco multiple times a day. My ayah, who looked after me in my early childhood, chewed tobacco with betel leaf.
My father was a heavy smoker, and got through over a pack a day. By that time, we knew what smoking did. As a 7-year old, I remember throwing his cigarette packs over our wall in an effort to convince him to quit. One day, he decided to go cold turkey. It’s been over 20 years since.
What’s behind it all? There are studies that show that a tendency towards nicotine addiction can be genetically inherited. However, the environmental conditioning that led me towards nicotine cannot be ignored.
Stress and Sexism
The evening that someone else had to light my first cigarette lit for me, I was under the kind of duress that any 20-something would struggle with. I had a high-stress job in a male-dominated industry, I was going through a bad breakup and attempting to reinvent myself, and I was living on my own for the first time, finding my feet as an adult in an unforgiving world.
Over the days that followed that experience, I slowly began to buy a few cigarettes a day, just to enjoy the pleasure of lighting up and joining my colleagues over their smoke breaks. The boys’ club at my workplace would routinely meet in the “smoking zone” to talk shop, and the lit cigarette in my hand worked as the perfect icebreaker to guarantee my inclusion.
In a patriarchal society like India, there was a satisfying sense of rebellion.
I soon began to acquire a pack a day. I told myself I was doing it to exchange large bank notes for small change, or that I was being a friendly coworker who always had a smoke to offer. But of course I was becoming steadily dependent on nicotine.
In a patriarchal society like India, there was something else to it as well—a satisfying sense of rebellion as I shocked passers-by by lighting up. Other women would pass me by on the street and make disparaging comments. Men would look me up and down, as if eyeing a proposition.
There was even an incident in which a pair of men idled as they drew towards a traffic light, whipped out their camera phones and filmed me smoking. My sense of rebellion grew. I was subverting cultural expectations of me, and this lent itself to the narrative I was using to justify my addiction.
The Switch to Vaping
It took a few years of smoking before it dawned on me that I couldn’t stop. My day had to start with lighting up as soon as I got out of bed. I was well aware of the risks—the impact it had on my lungs was already palpable during my workouts. And while heart disease felt far away, the specter of cancer always felt more immediate.
It was around this time that my uncle, a former chain-smoker, showed me a neat little device called a vape. It delivered flavored vapor like a miniature hookah. I could change the flavors and adjust the intensity of the hit of smoke I inhaled. The best part about all of it was that it would deliver my daily dose of nicotine without burning its way down my throat and leaving deposits of tar in my lungs.
After some initial research, I outfitted my first ever vape, picking up fruity flavors that were far more appealing than the pungent, heavy fumes of a traditional cigarette. I learnt how to tell a burnt coil from a new one, how to clean its filter and keep it running. I could never quite remember to plug it in to charge it, but that was a solvable problem.
Vaping freed me from the pressure of worrying about my health and trying to ration how much I smoked.
The first thing I noticed about the impact of vaping was how much lighter it left me feeling. My lungs didn’t feel as constrained during my morning swim workouts. I was breathing far easier while I slept each night. My resting heart-rate dropped within days, and I felt more physically energetic.
My mental health improved, as well. I found that I was far less anxious on the whole, and not just about whether I had enough cigarettes to get me through the evening. Vaping felt less like a compulsion and more like an active choice, where I could control the amount of vapor I inhaled without having to stress out about finishing a cigarette down to its filter.
I didn’t have to worry about where I’d source cigarettes for a midnight craving, or where I’d smoke while it was raining. I didn’t have to be concerned about wreathing my non-smoker friends in clouds of smoke. I no longer had to fret over showing up at meeting rooms and house parties smelling like an ashtray.
Within weeks, I’d put my cigarettes aside. I carried my vape to my workplace smoking zone. I popped it into my purse to take down to the local pub, and made friends with strangers as I explained how it worked.
As someone who traveled frequently for work, I also had a great time explaining what my vape was to airport security. When I’d encounter language barriers, I’d wind up giving an impromptu demonstration, much to their amusement, right beside the baggage scanners.
Most importantly, vaping freed me from the pressure of worrying about my health and trying to ration how much I smoked. I could just enjoy the nicotine that helped me to cope with life, guilt-free. It felt like a second chance.
The Vape Ban
When rumors of a vape ban in India started to do the rounds, I happened to be in New York. I received frantic phone calls from friends who were also former smokers-turned-vapers, asking me to bring them various e-liquids and pods on my way back.
I packed as much as my bags could carry. These essential vape supplies were far less expensive to source in the United States than back at home, and they wouldn’t go to waste, I figured, even if the ban never came into effect.
My circle of vapers belonged to a diverse set of backgrounds from all over India. They were men and women of all demographics, representing a number of ethnicities and cultures, many of which frowned upon smoking as a practice. Being able to access vapes had given us all an opportunity to manage our nicotine use without having to risk valuable relationships or our health. Now, the ban threatened to take that away.
When it eventually came into effect in September 2019, there was wide-scale panic. I supplied everyone I could with my pods and liquids, in utmost secrecy, until I ran out. It felt like I was their “drug dealer”—in reality, I was their dwindling link to a healthier life.
Desperate to avoid turning back to cigarettes, I tried every conceivable alternative. Nicotine patches induced terrible allergies. Nicotine gum induced acid reflux, a burning pain searing its way through my insides. Going cold turkey resulted in mood swings and headaches.
I eventually returned to picking up cigarettes at the local tobacconist.
Whose Lungs Are They, Anyway?
My all-too-brief ability to choose how to consume nicotine was incredibly empowering. I didn’t have to suffer through terrible withdrawal pangs, including mood swings and an inability to concentrate, when I was vaping nicotine. At times when I felt like it, I even chose e-liquids without any nicotine in them, enjoying the taste and ritual without the drug. Either way, I didn’t have to endure any side effects, and I no longer needed to damage my heart, lungs and other internal organs.
Because of the government’s decision, I’m back to smoking every single day.
By banning vapes, the government has given in to tobacco lobbies who want to keep selling cigarettes—not forgetting the government’s own interests in tax revenues and its own ITC shares. It has done this at the expense of my health, and the health of millions of other vapers and potential vapers across India.
Because of this decision, I’m back to smoking every single day. I regret smoking my first cigarette. But if the government returned freedom of choice to its citizens, adopting a sustainable, long-term attitude to reducing the harms of tobacco, I wouldn’t have to keep on suffering the consequences of that fateful evening.
Photograph of the author’s local tobacconist by the author.