NEW DELHI: Earlier this week the government of India issued a fairly harsh ordinance banning e-cigarettes, prompting a surge in shares of cigarette makers.

Soon after the announcement shares of ITC Ltd rose 1.8 percent, VST Industries Ltd went up by 1 percent, and Golden Tobacco Ltd jumped by 4.5 percent, while Godfrey Phillips India Ltd was the biggest gainer at 7.8 percent. The surge has since settled, but is indicative of an interesting sentiment.

Through government investments, the people of India have close to a 30% stake in ITC Ltd, the largest cigarette manufacturer in India. The publicly owned Life Insurance Corporation of India holds 16.32% and a further 7.96% is owned through the Specified Undertaking of Unit Trust of India, while the General Insurance Corporation of India, New India Insurance and Oriental Insurance together have about 4.36 percent.

The government has also purchased a small stake in VST Industries Ltd, India’s second largest tobacco company, through the New India Assurance Company.

“There’s no doubt that the move to ban e-cigarettes is closely tied to the tobacco lobby,” said a source associated with the e-cigarette industry who did not want to be named. “It’s such a harsh ordinance; we feel like we’re being treated like terrorists.”

The ordinance makes the manufacture, import, sale and advertisement of e-cigarettes a cognisable offence - punishable with jail time. “The decision was taken in light of the impact e-cigarettes are having on youth,” said finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, adding that the ban was based on data derived from several US-based organisations which suggest that smoking e-cigarettes had become a trend amongst the youth.

Arjun Goel, co-founder of Alt Vapours, described the ban as “absurd and harsh.” “Why is the government of India relying on US data to pass an ordinance that applies to the people of this country? Shouldn’t they collect usage data from within India before they implement a decision that applies to the entire country?” Goel told The Citizen.

Goel also accused the government of being selective. “They’re using half baked data,” he said, asking why the government had chosen to ignore data from other parts of the world which show that e-cigarettes are in fact a safer alternative to cigarette use. “Why are we cherrypicking data?”

Indeed a randomised trial conducted by the UK’s National Health Service, published last February in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that for smokers who are trying to quit, e-cigarettes were nearly twice as effective as nicotine patches or gum.

And a study published last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Washington DC, showed that there are short-term general health improvements if you completely switch from smoking cigarettes to vaping products.

E-cigarettes heat tobacco rather than burning it, which is why, as several studies have shown, they produce carcinogenic and otherwise toxic chemicals are in lower concentrations than cigarettes. E-cigarettes also contain only a fraction of the 7,000 or so chemicals found in commercial cigarettes. The Canadian Health Services website is categorical: based on these studies, “Vaping is less harmful than smoking.”

However, public health experts also point out that if sold unregulated, e-cigarettes may act as a gateway drug, drawing young people into other, more harmful forms of smoking tobacco such as cigarettes.

Goel believes the government should carry out its own research to study the relative health risks of vaping and e-cigarettes. “We will challenge the ordinance in court,” he added.

The government’s ordinance defines e-cigarettes as “an electronic device that heats a substance, with or without nicotine and flavours, to create an aerosol of inhalation and includes all forms of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), Heat Not Burn Products, e-Hookah and the like devices, by whatever name called and whatever shape, size or form it may have, but does not include any product licensed under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940.”

This rankles Goel. “The government has relied on data about the health risks of nicotine use, but moved to ban even non-nicotine ENDS. If the argument is that nicotine is harmful, where’s the logic in banning non-nicotine products?”

“Tobacco is sold everywhere and in all forms, be it beedi or gutka,” remarked another source employed in the vaping industry. “So where’s the sense in banning one particular form of it and not another?”

Sixteen states in India had already banned e-cigarettes, after the union health ministry issued a directive last year mandating curbs on vaping. The advisory was challenged in court, and the Bombay and Delhi High Courts stayed it in March this year.

Besides the commercial interests possibly weighing on the government’s move, it is well known that taxes on the sale of tobacco products form a large chunk of many state governments’ revenues. This may explain why no Indian government has banned cigarettes as yet, despite their well documented health costs.

While those within the e-cigarette industry have highlighted studies that suggest that vaping is less harmful than cigarettes and an efficient replacement therapy tool, many health practitioners disagree. Many medical bodies have cautioned against the use of e-cigarettes, stating that their long term health effects remain unknown. Public vaping remains banned in many places until the effects of secondary inhalation become clearer.

Dr Sunil Havannavar, a consultant in internal medicine at the Columbia Asia Hospital, believes that e-cigarettes might in fact increase nicotine dependence because of the perception that they are safer. “E-cigarettes may prove dangerous for public health and also eventually upsurge the burden of cancer if there is more cigarette smoking among the youth due to them.

“Nowadays, e-cigarettes are attaining popularity and there has been a push to understand whether or not they are a ‘gateway’ to cigarette smoking. The number of e-cigarette smokers has considerably increased because of the perception that they are a healthy substitute to tobacco ingestion with minimal or no harm. However, there is an increasing sign that e-cigarettes emit significant levels of toxicants.”

But according to Mehak Singhania, a Delhi-based vaper, “The question isn’t whether e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes - there isn’t enough data to prove that one way or the other. The question is, why has the government chosen to ban e-cigarettes, selectively citing data, but left the tobacco industry unchallenged?

“Nicotine is bad for you, whether in the form of e-cigarettes or cigarettes, beedis or gutka or hookahs. Why ban one, and that too through an ordinance, but leave the others?”