India’s ban on electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) such as e-cigarettes has robbed the country’s 120 million smokers of access to less harmful alternatives, a tobacco harm reduction advocate said at an online global forum on June 11. “This got me to wonder why a country which would benefit the most from risk reduction so hastily ban it? Why didn’t the government think that a million Indian lives lost every year to smoking were worth saving?” Association of Vapers India (AVI) director Samrat Chowdhery said during the virtual Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN).
GFN, traditionally held in Warsaw, Poland, is an annual conference organized by London-based Knowledge Action Change to discuss the merits of tobacco harm reduction. Nearly 600 individuals participated in this year’s forum held online on June 11 and 12 which delivered presentations from 30 experts on the theme “Nicotine: science, ethics, and human rights”.
Chowdhery talked about the challenges to tobacco harm reduction posed by policy, state control, and tobacco monopolies and slammed the decision of the government to ban ENDS, which he said could be blamed on various factors, including the influential tobacco industry in the country.
"Given the lucrativeness of the tobacco trade and the amount of tax revenue it generates, the state has always historically owned and operated this business. While the western nations ceded control over the last century, many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), especially in Latin America and Asia, continue to partially or wholly-own tobacco companies,” said Chowdhery.
He said this resulted in serious implications such as conflict of interest, which raises questions about the state’s intent in reducing the use of tobacco products when it directly profits from their sale.
“State-owned tobacco companies behave like public sector units, which although also driven by profit just like the private sector, are notoriously resistant to change. They see innovation as a threat and have the political means to stub it out to maintain the status quo. This effect is manifest in the ongoing pushbacks against risk-reduction technologies in many Latin American and Asian nations, including India where the state owns nearly a third of the country’s cigarette monopoly,” Chowdhery said.
Chowdhery said to resolve the smoking epidemic, the state should divest from the tobacco industry. “Removing benefits to the state from tobacco should in fact go further, by ensuring that sin tax is used only to reduce the sin and for controlling damage from it, and for no other purpose.
This would force a rethink of the problem, framing it in ways that actually help the world’s 1 billion tobacco users and removes incentives for strategies that do little to improve their lives or conditions while further alienating and punishing them,” he said.
About 80 percent of the world’s smokers live in LMICs such as India. Globally, experts say the smoking epidemic, the single biggest cause of non-communicable disease, could kill 8 million people in 2020.