India announced on Wednesday a ban on the sale of electronic cigarettes, as a backlash gathers pace worldwide due to health concerns about a product promoted as less harmful than smoking tobacco.
The Indian announcement, also outlawing production, import and distribution, came a day after New York became the second US state to ban flavoured e-cigarettes following a string of vaping-linked deaths.
“The decision was made keeping in mind the impact that e-cigarettes have on the youth of today,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters in New Delhi.
E-cigarettes do not “burn” but instead heat up a liquid — tasting of everything from bourbon to bubble gum and which usually contains nicotine — that turns into vapour and is inhaled.
The vapour is missing the estimated 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke but does contain a number of substances that could potentially be harmful.
They have been pushed by producers, and also by some governments including in Britain, as a safer alternative to traditional smoking — and as a way to kick the habit.
However critics say that apart from being harmful in themselves, the flavours of e-cigarette liquids appeal particularly to children and risk getting them addicted to nicotine.
Some 3.6 million middle and high school students in the United States used vaping products in 2018, an increase of 1.5mn on the year before.
The New York emergency legislation followed an outbreak of severe pulmonary disease that has killed seven people and sickened hundreds.
US President Donald Trump's administration announced last week that it would soon ban flavoured e-cigarette products to stem a rising tide of youth users.
Although few Indians vape at present, the Indian ban also cuts off a vast potential market of 1.3 billion consumers for makers of e-cigarettes.
Tobacco firms have been investing heavily in the technology to compensate for falling demand for cigarettes due to high taxes and public smoking bans, particularly in the West.
In 2018 Altria, the US maker of brands such as Marlboro and Chesterfield, splashed out almost $13 billion on a stake in one of the biggest e-cigarette makers, Juul.
A few Indian states have already banned e-cigarettes although the restrictions have been ineffective since online sale of vaping products continue.
The new ban does not cover traditional tobacco products in India.
According to the World Health Organisation, India is the world's second-largest consumer of tobacco products, killing nearly 900,000 people every year.
Nearly 275mn people over 15, or 35 per cent of adults, are users, although chewing tobacco — which also causes cancer — is more prevalent than smoking.
India is also the world's third-largest producer of tobacco, the WHO says, and tobacco farmers are an important vote bank for political parties.
According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, an estimated 45.7mn people depend on the tobacco sector in India for their livelihood.
Tobacco is also a major Indian export, and the government holds substantial stakes, directly or indirectly, in tobacco firms including in ITC, one of India's biggest companies.