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An open letter, dated March 13th, was sent to several Indian Union ministers urging them to reconsider the government’s position on electronic nicotine delivery systems (or ENDS) ahead of the World Health Organization’s annual tobacco control conference that is currently planned for November of this year in the Netherlands. 

The letter was written by the Association of Vapers India or AVI. AVI is a consumer advocacy organization that was founded by former journalist Samrat Chowdhery with the mission to defend the right of tobacco users in India to harm reduction methods.

The letter comes in response to an emergency order the Indian government approved last September that prohibited the import and sale of ENDS in the country. The ordinance was pushed through quickly, with no deliberations by the members of parliament. The bill was debated in parliament two months later and passed despite over 60 objections and amendments proposed by opposition parties.

Earlier in the year, the country’s premier medical body, the Indian Council of Medical Research or ICMR published a white paper recommending the ban, citing a study that ENDS are a potential “gateway” product to combustible cigarettes. As we reported last week, leading experts are departing the findings of that study (co-authored by Stanton Glantz) and pushing for its retraction. 

In the parliamentary debate, the Indian government also pointed to lung injuries and deaths in the US from late last year. Those injuries have since been proven to be linked not to nicotine vapor products, but instead to a thickening agent in cannabis e-liquid sold on the black market. 

India is home to an estimated 120 million people who smoke, (approximately 12% of the world’s smoking population, second only to China), that includes other harmful forms of combustible tobacco like Bidis (which are cigarette-like rolls of unprocessed tobacco wrapped in a tendu or temburni leaf), leading to billions in medical expenses and over a million deaths per year. If that is the case, why would the government take a hard-line prohibitionist stance on products that are proven to help people quit smoking?

There are many possible answers to that question but there is one potential reason that is clear: money.

The Indian government owns over 25% of a conglomerate named ITC Limited. ITC Limited has many lines of business including a chain of hotels, products like food, apparel and paper but their original business is cigarettes. It was reported that ITC Limited (whose original name was Imperial Tobacco Company of India Limited) had $7.9 BILLION in revenue last year and that over 60% that revenue came from the sale of cigarettes. 

That means the Indian government is directly profiteering not only by selling these deadly products to its citizens but also earning millions by TAXING those products while simultaneously enacting policies that make it illegal for people to gain access to the products that have been proven to help them quit these dangerous products all together. 

Many countries, India included, look to the World Health Organization for guidance on policy related to cigarettes and tobacco and AVI is hoping that this letter, along with voices of consumers not only in India, but around the world, will be enough to change the stance of the WHO, which to this point has failed to make tobacco harm reduction a part of their suggested tobacco control policy for almost 2 decades, despite scientific evidence proving it’s impact.

(Photo by Tarun Anand Giri)

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