By banning e-cigarettes, the government has exposed itself to the charges of arbitrariness and moral policing. Arbitrariness because cigarettes, which are much more dangerous than e-cigarettes, have not been outlawed; and moral policing because it is not the duty of government to tell people what should they do and what they shouldn’t.
Democracy is predicated upon the idea that a human being is rational and responsible; they should be allowed to do whatever they want to so long as they don’t harm others. Smoking and drinking are bad for health; every packet of cigarette and bottle of wine says that, and that should be enough. Proscribing tobacco and alcohol is bad; proscribing e-cigarettes, which are much less harmful, is worse. But this is exactly what the government has done.
Announcing the ban, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, “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.”
So, the government came up with the Promulgation of the Prohibition of Electronic Cigarettes (production, manufacture, import, export, transport, sale, distribution, storage and advertisement) Ordinance, 2019. “The owners of existing stocks of e-cigarettes on the date of commencement of the Ordinance will have to suo moto declare and deposit these stocks with the nearest police station,” an official press release said.
The release talked about a recent white paper on the subject by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) which recommended a complete ban on e-cigarettes: “These products are usually marketed as being safer alternatives for conventional cigarettes but such notions of safety are false. On the other hand, available literature suggests that these products may act as gateway products to induce non-smokers, especially youth and adolescents, to nicotine-use, leading to addiction and subsequent use of conventional tobacco products.”
The government hinted at a conspiracy by Big Tobacco to promote e-cigarettes. The press release said, “The possibility of tobacco industry interference in tobacco cessation efforts through misinformation about the potential benefits of these products, which are presented as alternatives but in most cases are complementary to the use of conventional tobacco products, also is a present and real possibility. Apart from nicotine, e-cigarettes may also be used for delivery of other psychoactive substances. Scientifically proven nicotine replacement therapies, without the risks associated with e-cigarettes, exist in the form of gums, lozenges and patches for those willing to quit tobacco use.”
Well, it is not just the tobacco industry that talks about the potential benefits of e-cigarettes; government organizations also do that. Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, said in December last year that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than tobacco. In fact, its director, Prof John Newton, went on to say, “We need to reassure smokers that switching to an e-cigarette would be much less harmful than smoking.”
A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, mandated by the US Congress, which has been called the most comprehensive on the subject, states otherwise. The report says that “among adult populations, to the extent that e-cigarette use promotes either reduction or complete abstinence from combustible tobacco smoking, e-cigarettes may help to reduce health risks. E-cigarettes could similarly reduce risks to youth who take up e-cigarettes instead of combustible tobacco cigarettes. This may be especially beneficial for certain vulnerable populations.”
Further, it points out that “while e-cigarettes are not without health risks, they are likely to be far less harmful than conventional cigarettes.”
On the other hand, questions have been raised about the ICMR paper; it has even been accused of cherry-picking facts.
The press release also said, “Widespread use and unchecked proliferation of e-cigarettes and the like devices would seriously undermine and derail government’s efforts to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use.”
The government boasts about its “efforts to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use.” At the same time, it provides subsidies to the beedi sector. On March 12, 2018, Labor & Employment Santosh Kumar Gangwar said in written reply to a question in Lok Sabha that his “Ministry is providing housing subsidy of Rs 1.50 lakh in three installments to beedi workers for construction of a pucca house… So far, more than 7,500 workers have availed the benefit…”
Further, the government provides health care facilities through 12 hospitals and 286 dispensaries across the country.
The beedi sector is also taxed lightly, at just 22 per cent as compared to 53 per cent for cigarettes.
Against this backdrop, banning e-cigarettes is the height of hypocrisy.
And, of course, it is moral policing. Our political masters believe that we, the people of India, constantly need to be told what is good for us and what’s not, and they just ban anything that they think is not good for us.
Persuasion, discussion, debate, and compromise are and should be the hallmarks of a liberal democracy. But our leaders, especially when in power, are not interested in persuasion, discussion, etc. Why persuade when you can bulldoze them? Why coax or convince when you can coerce them?
Hence the predilection for coercion, proscription, making things mandatory, etc. And hence the ban on e-cigarettes.