By Lekshmi R Nair
Kerala Government’s recent decision to ban e-cigarettes is an innovation killer. The concerns raised about e-cigarettes are not grounded in sound evidence. There is microscopic evidence to show that e-cigarettes are passively harmful. At the same time, there is high chance that the decision to ban e-cigarettes could be counterproductive since evidence exists to show that smoking rates have relatively increased in places with e-cigarette bans.
Through banning e-cigarettes, the choices available in the market will be reduced, leaving the only option for the smokers to depend on the traditional cigarettes and the other tobacco products, which are freely available and are proven more dangerous. It will also reduce product innovation, increase prices and encourage a black market for e-cigarettes. The ban will not effectively work since marketing of e-cigarettes in Kerala is done through online sales and unauthorized courier agencies, according to recent reports. Online sales of e-cigarettes will still be possible due to the difficulty in keeping track on all the online portals selling e-cigarettes. In Karnataka, where e-cigarettes were recently banned, cases of around 50 e-commerce companies still selling e-cigarettes are reported while there could be more online portals selling e-cigarettes, which are not yet tracked.
Kerala already has a very high market for tobacco products since it is one among the top tobacco consuming states in South India. The economic costs for all diseases due to Tobacco were found out to be around 1513.7 Crores in the state. 21.4 percent of the adults used tobacco here, which consisted of both smokers and smokeless tobacco users, according to the study conducted by Public Health Foundation of India in 2011.
Around 74 percent of children in the state use tobacco, according to a study conducted by the National Drug Dependence and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in 2014. By banning e-cigarettes in Kerala, the children and adult smokers who might otherwise switch to e-cigarettes would thus keep buying traditional cigarettes and other cheaper tobacco products like beedi, which are freely available and are scientifically proven as more dangerous. Moreover, studies by Friedman (2015), Tuchman (2015) and Pesko et al. (2016), which compare the states in the US where e-cigarettes are banned and not banned show that smoking has relatively increased in states with bans on e-cigarettes. This means that e-cigarette banning can be counterproductive and can increase the smoking rates.
One main argument based on which the Government of Kerala decided to ban e-cigarettes was that e-cigarettes cause heart attack and cancer. At the same time, these concerns are not based on solid evidence and needs to be still researched more. There are many other studies like the one by the National Health Services UK, Public Health England 2015 and the Web Med studies, which show that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than the traditional cigarettes. There are also some rigorous studies like the studies done by Duke University, U.K. Center for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies and the University of Geneva’s Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, which show that e-cigarette can be an effective means of quitting smoking of conventional cigarettes at little health risk effects.
Banning e-cigarettes can also result in an illegal market for the e-cigarettes like the illegal market developed for cigarettes. India is the fourth largest illegal cigarette market in the world according to Euromonitor International. The tobacco control measures like high taxation have resulted in the decline in the consumption of legal cigarettes from 86 Million kg in 1980-81 to 62 Million Kg in 2014-15. At the same time, the consumption of illegal cigarettes which includes smuggled foreign and tax evaded domestically manufactured cigarettes has increased from 320 Million kg to 500 Million Kg in the same period.
Since 89 percent of total tobacco consumption is in the form of illegal cigarettes and other tobacco products like bidis and chewing tobacco in the country, the overall tobacco use has increased by around 39 percent from 1980-81 to 2015. In Kerala, there are recent evidence of seizures of smuggled cigarettes of values Rs 9 crore and Rs 1.58 crore in Kochi by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and Customs Department. e-cigarette banning will also result in the development of an illegal market for the product since there is a huge growing demand for the product in the Indian states. Analysts predict a growth rate of 63.38 percent of e-cigarette market in India over the period 2013 to 2018, thus presenting a huge market to grow and to earn profits.
e-cigarette banning will reduce product innovations. Rather than the existing tobacco control measures through which tobacco consumption rates have increased, promoting innovations like e-cigarettes could be attempted for quitting people from smoking conventional cigarettes and the other tobacco products. For all the technological innovations, in the initial phase, there had been many apprehensions about their long-term health and behavioural effects. In the 1990s, for example, when the cell phones were becoming popular, there were many debates globally and in Kerala regarding the safety effects of cell phones and the radiations from mobile towers like chances of brain tumour and cancer.
Once they turned out, it was found that though the risks of a brain tumour and cancer with prolonged use of cell phones cannot be disregarded, they are minuscule and unimportant. Likewise, e-cigarettes, which are are more worthy and relatively new innovations, should be allowed to compete in the market with the more dangerous tobacco products.
Banning e-cigarettes will reduce the product innovation and any legislation on e-cigarettes should be based on sound evidence. e-cigarettes need to be attempted by the government as an innovation to displace smoking with traditional cigarettes and the usage of other tobacco products by the adults and youth. At present, there is no ban on cigarettes or other tobacco products in Kerala.
e-cigarettes need to be given time and space for competing with the traditional cigarette and the other tobacco products, which are freely available and contain huge amounts of poisonous nicotine.
Lekshmi R Nair is the Centre Manager of CPPR- Centre for Comparative Studies.
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