E-cigarettes have not yet been classified as a drug while the recent media reports about the government planning to ban the sale of these products have been influenced by the big tobacco lobby, QuitCig founder Ameer Bahl told CNBCTV18.com in an exclusive interview.
Quitcig.in is a company founded in Holland that aims to promote alternatives to tobacco.
While e-cigarettes can legally be brought into and sold in New Delhi, various retailers have tried bringing in these products illegally without paying taxes. The government should focus on shutting down these illegal operations as these retailers supply nicotine products to underage children, Bahl said.
Edited excerpts from the interview: A lot of recent reports say that the government is looking to ban the sale and manufacturing e-cigarettes or Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) and it will be classified as a ''drug" under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. Can you help us understand why this decision was taken? In your opinion, to what extent was the tobacco lobby responsible for this?
The only place where you will be able to find this information is in the media. If you go to any government department, any health ministry or any of the relevant people, they will inform you that e-cigarettes have not been classified as a drug yet. It is the tobacco lobby that has been influencing the media to spread negative news about e-cigarettes. In fact, in New Delhi, e-cigarette shipments have full customs clearance and can be brought into the country and sold legally. However, various parties have tried bringing in these products illegally without paying the appropriate taxes and in these cases, e-cigarettes have ended up in the wrong hands --minors and underage consumers. The government should focus on clamping down these illegal operations instead of focusing on e-cigarettes as a whole since underage consumption is a problem faced by many different industries. If you see a teenager with a bottle of alcohol, are you going to ban alcohol completely? If you see a minor smoking a cigarette, are you going to ban cigarettes completely? Absolutely not.
What is the e-cigarette industry doing about this problem? What are the plans and strategies that will be adopted by the industry to avoid underage consumption of e-cigarettes?
In terms of how to move forward from this, we're advising the government to clamp down on the illegal buying and selling of e-cigarettes.The government has various mechanisms to solve this problem and this can be done rather easily. There should be guidelines that specify how to sell these products so that they don't end up in the hands of underage consumers. For example, IDs should be collected before selling these products so that the age of the consumer can be verified. On our website, we do age verification in two ways. First, on credit card payments we don't have to do any verification as credit cards are only issued to people over the age of eighteen. With cash on delivery payments, we always ask our customers to send their ID via Whatsapp before delivery.
Are e-cigarettes safe for consumption? In August 2018, the health ministry of India said that ENDS pose a major threat to public health. Consequently, in January 2018, India's Health Secretary wrote a letter to the government saying that these products are "harmful". Their opinions are reflected in a number of studies: the American scientific journal noted that e-cigarettes significantly increase the risk of lung diseases such as asthma and bronchitis. In light of these facts, to what extent can we continue advocating the use of these products?
The question that we need to ask first is what the main objective of e-cigarettes is. These products were created with a view to help existing cigarette smokers quit smoking. We are not encouraging first time smokers to start using these products because they are absolutely not intended for non-smokers. While e-cigarettes are not completely healthy and there are health risks associated with them, they are about 95 percent safer than cigarettes, according to a study by the UK government. If the Indian government decides to ban e-cigarettes, they need to ban cigarettes and cigars as well since these products are considerably more harmful for our health. The government can't simply go ahead and ban competition for the tobacco industry, especially if it is a safer and healthier alternative.
First, a cigarette contains close to 4,000 chemicals while in an e-cigarette, there are less than a hundred chemicals. Just this basic information is enough to help us understand that e-cigarettes are significantly safer and healthier than cigarettes. Most importantly, e-cigarettes are free of cancer-causing substances present in cigarettes like tar. Second, e-cigarettes solve the problem of passive smoking. If one person is smoking in a room, the whole room is passively smoking. E-cigarettes are not constantly burning and the smoke emitted by them instantly disappears. Finally, cigarette butts are one of the biggest contributors of littering in the world.
What are some of the major benefits for smokers to switch over to e-cigarettes?
In fact, the most important indication that e-cigarettes contribute to a longer life as compared to cigarettes is the fact that European insurance companies have started saying that they won't provide insurance to smokers unless they switch over to e-cigarettes. Additionally, e-cigarettes are a premium product and have a high initial investment. For this reason, our target market consists of educated middle to high income groups. We are not enticing the poor to get addicted to these products. On the other hand, cigarettes and beedis can be sold individually, making tobacco products very accessible to low income groups. Cigarette companies should not be allowed to sell these single cigarettes individually since in addition to being very easily accessible to minors and the lower income groups, these single cigarettes do not come with any warning labels that inform the public about their harms. It's disappointing that in India, instead of educating the section of our population addicted to cigarettes about the health benefits of switching over to e-cigarettes, we are continuing to find reasons to ban e-cigarettes altogether.
There are several different aspects that we need to understand. I completely agree that the JUUL brand in particular is somewhat of a status symbol brand. We've taken precautions to ensure that these products do not appeal to the children. Since JUUL has a lot of appealing and fragrant flavours like mango and cucumber, our website does not sell these fruity flavours for JUUL. In other brands, we continue to offer the fruity flavours simply because these brands are not status symbols. I believe these fruity flavours should not be sold in India over the counter as they particularly appeal to the youth. Instead, these should be sold online to adults who actually want to buy these flavours after a comprehensive age-verification process. A sixteen year-old will certainly have to think ten times before ordering these fruity flavours online. First, he'll need a fake ID. Next, he doesn't know when the product would be delivered and if his parents are home, he'll get into a lot of trouble. So, the whole process of buying e-cigarettes online ensures that there are many obstacles that prevent underage children from obtaining these products.
5. E-cigarette companies like JUUL have recently come under fire as their products largely appeal to the youth and they are accused of being responsible for the 'vaping epidemic' in the US. In India, these products have become very popular with the youth and remain a common sight in upscale nightclubs and bars. Are e-cigarette companies deliberately targeting a younger audience? How can we tackle this problem?