The life of a harm reduction advocate in a land where e-cigarettes are banned

It can be hard to be in a minority (or seeming minority), with no apparent way of persuading others to your point of view. Imagine being a gun control proponent at a Trump rally, or the one supporter of abortion rights among an evangelical congregation. A socialist in the British Labour Party. Or a harm reduction advocate in a country where smoking is rife and e-cigarettes are banned.

What all such embattled idealists would do well to remember is that what seems permanent and inevitable may not be so. To paraphrase the great Ursula Le Guin, the divine right of kings once seemed an inescapable basis for government.

The present right-wing, Hindu nationalist, government of India – led since 2014 by hard-line prime minister Narendra Modi – must sometimes seem inescapable to its opponents. Such as Jagannath Sarangapani of the Association of Vapers India (AVI) and the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations (INNCO).

As Sarangapani, a Hyderabad-based businessman, told British journalist Kiran Sidhu for an interesting recent article in the campaigning magazine Filter *: “The day I received [my first] vape was the day I stopped smoking: I went from smoking 40 cigarettes to zero cigarettes. Since vaping, I am so much healthier. I can taste my food better, and I no longer eat so much salt. I don’t have to take the blood pressure tablets I used to take, and I can run five kilometres.”

Just by saying this publicly, though, Sarangapani risks punishment in a country which in 2019 summarily banned all forms of production, storage, import, export, sale, transport, distribution and advertising of e-cigarettes. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman even remarked at the time that it was “unfortunate” that e-cigs had been promoted as a tool for quitting smoking.


What price life insurance?


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join in to hear about news, events, and podcasts in the sector

    See more

    Unfortunate, you might ask, for whom? Among others, no doubt for the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), the country’s leading cigarette manufacturer, shares in which are held by two government-owned insurance firms. As Sarangapani asks: “Can you believe a life insurance company owns a stake in a cigarette company?”

    And would you believe that the national e-cig ban was instantly followed by a sharp rise in ITC’s stock price? “It can lead you to infer,” Sarangapani continues, “that the ban was pushed by tobacco companies who felt threatened.”

    He notes too that the ban followed hard on the heels of news that Juul was considering entering the Indian market.

    It’s also worth noting that, while Sarangapani says cigarette smokers are “a small percentage” of the population, India – the world’s second largest country by population – is also the eighth largest cigarette market. Add the much larger percentage who smoke bidis or chew gutka, and India is second only to China as a market for tobacco and therefore a potentially huge e-cigarette market. The stakes here are high. 

    * It’s perhaps fair to point out that Filter magazine is funded (openly and without subterfuge) by a variety of organisations that include Juul Labs, Altria, Philip Morris International (PMI), the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (itself funded by PMI) and Reynolds American. Does this make it entirely independent and unbiased? No. Does it invalidate the views (and facts) it publishes? Also no.

    – Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Koshy Koshy

    Author default picture

    Aidan Semmens