Nothing short of unconventional. The ordinance that banned the import, manufacture and sale of nicotine-based e-cigarettes and vapes on 18 September 2019 in India, created allies no one saw coming. Aside from India’s health ministry and doctors, other ministries, tobacco farmers, and even cigarette manufacturers, were happy to call for a countrywide ban.

A 31-member committee formed under the tobacco control division—with about 20 doctors, lawyers and public health workers, which has met several times in the past 2-3 years—had made a unanimous decision.

This was a first. So far, all of the health ministry’s attempts at controlling tobacco had—under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) treaty—faced much resistance.

First, from within the government. While the ministry of agriculture wants to protect India’s millions of farmers whose livelihood depends on growing tobacco, the finance ministry can’t afford to forego the taxes it earns from the sale of tobacco products—amounting to around Rs 40,000 crore ($5.62 billion) last year. Second, resistance from the industry itself. The protests often come in the form of high court appeals made by tobacco farmers or cigarette makers. Finally, researchers funded by tobacco companies question the effectiveness of the policy. Would increasing the size of the warnings on cigarette packs and making them gruesome really reduce tobacco use? Back to square one.

But the popularity of e-cigarettes made everyone pause and notice. An e-cigarette brand in particular. The US-based e-cigarette and vape maker Juul Labs.

The e-cigarette market in India had started changing rapidly since mid-2018. Estimated to be about $50 million by various players in the sector, it had been growing at an average of 60% every year. But since last year, the new products being sold were almost entirely Juul’s, which, some estimate, had captured a third of the market within a year. All this without Juul formally launching in India. 

However, with easy online accessibility, the consumers of e-cigarettes have also naturally evolved. Before 2018, the e-cigarettes were predominantly being sold to adult smokers, said several vendors that The Ken spoke to. Soon, teenage cigarette smokers and adolescents who had never smoked a cigarette before began to take up Juul in India. A trend that’s been at the centre of the vaping debate in the US. 80% of Juul’s US sales come from flavoured e-cigarettes that are primarily popular among the youth – Juul, with a 72% share of the market, saw a revenue of $1.3 billion in 2018 at a profit of $12.4 million, three years after launch. 

To prevent Juul from reaching adolescents, two states in the US—New York and Massachusetts—banned it in September, 2019. Teen vaping is precisely why the US FDA is considering a blanket ban on flavoured e-cigarettes.