India banned the production, import and sale of electronic cigarettes on Wednesday, a public health decision that will dash the expansion plans of companies such as Juul Labs and Philip Morris International in the country.
The ban will be imposed through an executive order and will include jail terms of up to three years for offenders. It was not clear whether the use of such products would be prohibited.
India’s health ministry, which proposed the ban, had said it was needed to ensure e-cigarettes don’t become an “epidemic” among children and young adults.
“Considering the seriousness of the impact of e-cigarettes on the youth, the cabinet has approved an ordinance to ban e-cigarettes,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told a news conference.
India has 106 million adult smokers, second only to China in the world, making it a lucrative market for companies making vaping products such as U.S.-based Juul, as well as Philip Morris which manufactures a heat-not-burn tobacco device.
While announcing the ban, Sitharaman showed various types of products to the media, including a Juul vaping device that resembles a USB flash drive.
Juul had plans to launch its e-cigarette in India and has hired several senior executives in recent months. Philip Morris also has plans to launch its heat-not-burn smoking device in India, Reuters has reported.
Juul and other vaping companies have come under increased scrutiny in the U.S. amid multiple lawsuits, several deaths and possibly hundreds of illnesses tied to e-cigarettes, which are used to inhale nicotine vapour without smoking.
A spokeswoman for Juul in India declined to comment. Philip Morris did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Vaping advocates denounce ban
The ban order needs to be approved by the president before it takes effect, but this is typically a formality.
Advocates for e-cigarettes say vaping is far less harmful than smoking tobacco. But many tobacco-control activists are opposed to the devices, saying they could lead to nicotine addiction and push people toward consuming tobacco.
More than 900,000 people die each year in India due to tobacco-related illnesses.
The Association of Vapers India, an organization that represents e-cigarette users across the country, attacked the government’s decision, saying it would deprive millions of smokers of a safer solution to cut back on smoking.
Shares in ITC, India’s top cigarette maker, ended up nearly one per cent, while its rival Godfrey Phillips surged 5.2 per cent. E-cigarettes form just a tiny part of their product range.
The ban order will impose a jail term of up to one year and a fine of 100,000 rupees ($1,863 Cdn) for first-time offenders. A repeat violation would attract a jail term of up to three years and a penalty of up to 500,000 rupees ($9,315 Cdn), the government said.
The ban would apply to the manufacture, import, sale, advertisement and distribution of e-cigarettes.
Such executive orders are typically issued as an emergency measure when Indian parliament is not in session. The ban order could lapse if it is not approved when lawmakers convene against in the next session of parliament, which will most likely be held in November.
Democrats threaten to subpoena Juul
Meanwhile in Washington, Democrats threatened Wednesday to subpoena Juul Labs if the it does not provide documents relating to its products and marketing practices, as a House panel looks into whether the company deliberately targeted children.
In June, Raja Krishnamoorthi, chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, asked for documents relating to information, including Juul’s relationship with schools, and the tobacco giant Altria Group Inc’s purchase of a portion of the firm. He said in a statement on Wednesday Juul had not complied with the request.
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The House subcommittee ordered Juul, which is privately held, to produce the documents by Oct. 1, or “we may have no choice but to seek compulsory process,” Krishnamoorthi wrote in a letter to the company on Tuesday.
Juul faces about 30 lawsuits, with more expected, alleging it illegally marketed products to children, failed to issue warnings to consumers about their dangers and defectively designed products.
The company has yanked some flavour pods from retail shelves and changed its advertising to feature older models, but has continued to sell menthol and mint flavours.
U.S. health regulators have signaled plans to stop the sale of all flavoured e-cigarettes.