Eight months in, what lessons might be learned from India’s e-cig ban?

India’s blanket ban on e-cigarettes, summarily imposed by the federal government last September, is proving somewhat ineffective – as you might expect in a socially and geographically diverse, inconsistently policed country of more than 1.3bn people. (To put that in perspective, that’s four times the population of the US in a country just over one third of the size.)

Evidence from the street suggests that neither e-cigs nor the ban are issues that many people in India feel strongly about, which makes it unsurprising that compliance and enforcement of an edict handed down from on high should be weak.

An article in Business Insider India reports that eight months into the nationwide banpeople are able to buy e-cigarettes from any paan shop. If not, they can always go on the internet and buy them.”

Quite apart from the likelihood that banning any harm-reduction product will send users back to the more harmful alternatives (in this case from vaping back to smoking), there is the inevitable danger that any mass prohibition brings with it. This was vividly illustrated in the US in the 1920s by the well-meaning but disastrous Prohibition of alcohol a 13-year experiment that resulted in the permanent establishment of organised crime on a massive scale.

 

Driven underground

 

The problems associated with India’s e-cig prohibition are not of such proportions, because vaping is not as widespread or entrenched as America’s booze habit. But just as the banning of the previously legitimate US alcohol industry led to the springing-up of unregulated and potentially dangerous moonshine production and sale, the Indian ban has not shut down the market but merely driven it underground.

Cutting off the supply of internationally known brands such as Juul and Charlie’s Chalk Dust has left the field clear for illicit, unregulated products, bypassing quality controls.

As one seller told Business Insider: “The only thing that the ban has changed is branded products are out of the market. I can still sell Chinese products, which I usually buy from a black market in Mumbai.”

Will other governments and regulatory authorities around the world take notice and draw any lessons from India’s experience? Indeed, will the Indian government itself draw any conclusions and, if so, what might its next step be: an easing of regulations, a toughening of enforcement, or merely letting things drift as they are?

Photo: Abhijit Kar Gupta

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