Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday said that the Cabinet had approved a ban on e-cigarettes, also referred to as vaping devices. This means it will be illegal to manufacture, import or sell vapes in India. Though the devices were originally aimed as a way of weaning people away from regular cigarettes, Sitharaman said that they have become seen as a “cool-style statement”.

While further details are awaited, this clarification alone brings up the essential dilemma underpinning the regulation of e-cigarettes: should they be banned even as regular cigarettes, which are known to be addictive and responsible for serious health issues to both users and those around them, continue to sell by the millions in the country?

Sitharaman pointed out recent research on vaping from abroad. “Data from the US show many high school and middle-school students are taking to e-cigarettes.” This is true in a number of countries. Data from Canada for example, shows that the youth smoking rate in Canada rose for the first time in 30 years.

The devices have benefited from positive branding, thanks to snazzy technical designs, a plethora of inviting flavours and also an image that they are significantly better than regular cigarettes, which burn tobacco and leave a much more pervasive smell. Yet researchers point out that it took “decades for epidemiologists to discover that regularly inhaling the smoke from burning plant material, tobacco, caused lung cancer. Why would the scientific community be so quick to assume e-cigarettes would not have hidden dangers that might take years to manifest too?”

These are good arguments for regulators to scrutinise e-cigarettes more closely. But what explains the ban on vaping while regular cigarettes, about which there is no ambiguity, continue to be on sale? From a straightforward health perspective, there is no explanation. Every reason to ban e-cigarettes exists also for cigarettes, with much more certainty about the dangerous effects.

The answer might be in these numbers: The tobacco industry in India, including cigarettes, is a Rs 11.79 lakh crore sector employing around 4.57 crore people, according to a recent study. This means big business interests will be threatened if India tried to clamp down on the industry, as well as a certain amount of employment.

The question then lies here:

Is it prudent for the government to step in and prevent e-cigarettes turning into a large industry with significant clout that will hard to later shut down once we know more about the effects the devices cause?

Or is it arbitrarily picking sides by allowing big tobbaco companies to thrive while preventing any competition, despite knowing both products are dangerous?

And amid all of this, is there a case to be made that marijuana – whose negative effects are much less apparent compared to tobacco – should be more legalised?

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