Of smoke and mirrors: Will vaping ban stop millennials from lighting up?
First-time offenders will get a year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh or both.
The Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved a law banning e-cigarettes, criminalising the production, manufacturing, sale, distribution, and use of electric nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). The quantum of the punishment for first-time offenders amounts to a year’s imprisonment, a fine of up to Rs. 1 lakh or both.
Repeat offenders will face a jail term of three years, a fine of up to Rs. 5 lakh or both. India is not the first country to ban e-cigarettes, which are being marketed as less harmful alternatives to conventional cigarettes, and an exit route for many who wish to quit smoking in a phased manner. Developed countries like Singapore and Qatar have enforced blanket bans on e-cigarettes.
However, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that e-cigarettes are an effective aid in helping people quit smoking conventional cigarettes. Preliminary studies in the United States show that most adults who take to vaping do not stop smoking cigarettes, but gravitate towards dual use.
A study by researchers at the Georgia State University found that adjusted odds of quitting smoking are lower for those who used e-cigarettes, as opposed to smokers who did not use them. According to the survey’s findings, the use of e-cigarettes proved to be counterproductive for respondents who smoked them daily as an alternative to conventional cigarettes.
Catch them young
While the use of cigarettes and their electronic counterparts have grown in tandem over the years, the consumer base of both products tend to differ slightly. According to a recent World Bank working paper on electronic nicotine delivery systems, a third of the current users of e-cigarettes are nonsmokers, suggesting that they contribute to primary nicotine addiction, and the normalisation of tobacco use.
A study conducted in Canada showed that e-cigarette use was the highest among teenagers and young adults, aged 15-24 years. Among those polled, most e-cigarette users had never used rolled tobacco cigarettes, indicating that such devices have addiction-building power comparable to conventional tobacco products.
The case for regulation
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman justified the ban, citing a 77 per cent increase in e-cigarette sales in the U.S., primarily driven by demand from school students.
“Reports say that there are some who are probably getting into the habit of e-cigarettes as it seems cool. It is believed that there are more than 400 brands, none of which is manufactured yet in India. And they come in over 150 flavours," she said.
Big Tobacco cheered the government order, with the stock prices of Godfrey Phillips India, Golden Tobacco, and ITC gaining 5.55 per cent, 4.69 per cent, and 1.03 per cent respectively on the day of the announcement. Incidentally, the Indian government owns 28 per cent stake in ITC, the largest domestic manufacturer of traditional cigarettes, through public-sector insurance companies.
Given the extant literature on the detrimental health effects of smoking, it flies in the face of conventional wisdom that e-cigarettes are banned while other tobacco products continue to be sold freely, albeit with grotesquely graphic warnings that have done little to ward off smokers, or a dent the bottomlines of Big Tobacco.
The Association of Vapers India (AVI), an organisation representing the interests of e-cigarette users in the country, said that it was a black day for the 11-crore odd smokers in India who have been deprived of safer alternatives.
Moreover, since the stated aim of the policy decision is to curb the use of e-cigarettes among youngsters, it is surprising that instead of an outright ban, the government did not raise taxes on such products to price it beyond the reach of students, who are largely reliant on pocket money for sundry expenses. It can be argued that by pricing out a vulnerable demographic, the state can effectively stave off the spread of the smoking habit, whilst collecting bigger tax receipts from sin goods – an approach adopted by many countries around the world.
Tobacco products have attracted 28 per cent tax since the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) in 2017. In addition to the flat tax rate, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco also attract compensation cess depending on the length of the cigarettes – ad valorem of 5 per cent for all cigarettes, and 36 per cent for those over 75mm.
As of 2018, there were 98 countries that had federal laws regulating e-cigarettes. These include legislation related to the sale, distribution, advertisement, packaging, and taxation of vaping devices. Countries like Japan and Singapore have outlawed the sale of the liquid used in e-cigarettes, while certain other countries have imposed blanket bans on the sale and possession of vaping pens.
Imposing a tax on e-cigarettes is one strategy to keep such devices out of the hands of youngsters as an upward revision in prices would affect their adoption given the lower purchasing power of students. This tactic has been relatively successful with traditional tobacco products.
Studies on price elasticity – the relationship between demand and supply when there is a change in price – reveal that higher prices for e-cigarettes result in reduced use among teenagers in the U.S. Research conducted in six EU markets including the United Kingdom using pooled time-series data found that a 10 per cent increase in prices caused an 8.2 per cent drop in sales.