Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

Activists like this writer wholeheartedly welcome Modi Sarkar’s last week’s decision to ban E-cigarettes ! One hopes that banning E-cigarettes is only a prelude to a much greater and meaningful announcement to ban the greater culprit and health hazard and the forerunner of e-cigarettes- TOBACCO! A much more dangerous threat to the health, well being and economy of our nation continues to be caused by the leaves of “Nicotiana Tabacum” or what we call tobacco.

A White Paper has been brought out by the Indian Council of Medical Research[ ICMR] on e-cigarettes which defines what it is:- “Electronic Nicotine Delivery System [ENDS] or e-cigarettes are battery-powered devices used to smoke or ‘vape’ a flavoured solution containing a varying concentration of Nicotine, an addictive chemical found in cigarettes and other forms of tobacco products”.

”Manufacturing, import, export, transport, sale, distribution, storage, and advertising related to e-cigarettes “ have all been banned. The Finance Minister at her press conference , last Wednesday said, ”E-cigarettes were promoted as a way to get people out of their smoking habits but reports have shown that many people are not using it as weaning mechanism but are addicted to it.” She also said that the rate at vaping is becoming popular among the younger population is alarming, which warranted the ban.

How serious is this problem? In the absence of scientific national data we may rely on U S findings to gauge its seriousness. It is reported that in the US 21% of high school students and 5% of middle school students reportedly used E-cigarettes in the last 30 days in 2018 which represents an increase of 1.5 million youth from 2017 to 2018. A recent WHO report shows that the use of ENDS among non smoking youth has increased by a factor of 5 and 8 respectively in 3 years in Florida and similar increase is reported from many European countries and various other parts of the world. So the problem is indeed a serious concern and our government has taken expeditious action by the ban. There are of course critics of the government decision as premature.

Addiction is an age old problem mankind has faced since time immemorial. Mythologies from across the world have mentioned it and wine or alcohol probably is mentioned in Greek and Indian mythologies – call it Ambrosia, nectar, lotus, sura or whatever name one may like to use. Wine and other substances gave people pleasure, intoxication, inebriation or what we call today “kick’. Wine from grapes, other fruits and grains have been universally brewed making it an integral part of gastronomy.

There were leaves, fruits, roots, magic mushrooms and other flora which man discovered by accidentally tasting them as substances that gave them that kick. Cannabis [Cannabis Indica or Cannabis Sativa] that grew in our backyards is today known as Marijuana – Ganja, Charas, Bhang and a hundred other slang names; the coca leaves from a tree in South America led to the use of cocaine. Man’s quest for discovering derivatives of these psychotropic substances soon grew into the area of artificial mood altering potent chemicals like LSD or Lysergic acid Diethylamide also known as ‘acid’ made from a fungus that infects rye. Today people are exposed to newer and more potent drugs, the details of which are not included here for obvious reasons.

Tobacco is said to have been introduced by Christopher Columbus to Europe in the closing years of the 15th century. It was during his expeditions that Columbus came across some of the islanders inhaling the smoke of a longish leaf which was of the tobacco plant. It is believed that Columbus and his men took these magic leaves to Spain and in 1550 the French Ambassador to Portugal Jean Nicote sent tobacco seeds to France. Soon tobacco became a craze in Europe and tobacco trade and industry turned out to be a money spinner. All the European powers indulged in this lucrative business in their colonies including India. It is believed that the Portuguese introduced tobacco in our country and countless people in India soon became addicted to tobacco; they smoked and inhaled, chewed, sniffed, sucked and drank concentrated tobacco juice; cigarettes, bedies, cigars , pipes and hookah became an integral part of socio- cultural gatherings. As tobacco gave them instant gratification people never knew that tobacco was extremely injurious to their health and the chemical alkaloid that did the damage was nicotine.

Nicotine was first isolated from the tobacco plant in 1828 by two German chemists Posselt and Reimann. In 1843 its chemical empirical formula [C10H14N2] was described by Melsens.

Nicotine has proved to be highly addictive and is a legal drug, which is one of the most commonly abused drugs. It has been reported that an average cigarette yields about 2 mg of nicotine and if you smoke just a pack of ten your intake is 20 mg! One becomes physically and psychologically dependent to tobacco and nicotine. If an addicted smoker does not get his regular puff , the withdrawal symptoms are terrible- depressed mood, stress, anxiety, irritability, difficulty in concentrating, and sleep disturbances. Since the cancer causing effect of nicotine has been given tremendous publicity by our government agencies, there has been a reduction in smoking in the country. The entry of ENDS as a new improved technique seems to have damaged the anti tobacco campaign of the government.

It is therefore laudable that the government has banned e-cigarettes which is becoming increasingly popular with our youth including school children. It is mostly imported and people shifted to them under the false hope that they are less harmful than cigarettes and can help them quit smoking. The devices also look more sophisticated and modern. These are exactly the marketing techniques for e-cigarettes which have hooked millions of young people to this form of tobacco addiction.

Therefore there are various types of ENDS devices in the market. The most common type is an e-cigarette. “They that produce an aerosolized mixture of the flavoured liquids and nicotine, which is inhaled by the user. Nicotine is considered as one of the most addictive substances. The rapidity at which it is introduced into the body, age of first exposure and the dosage administered all add to determine the potential risk of a person being addicted to it throughout life. The various flavours and attractive designs of the devices also add to the allure of these products to the young population.”[ ICMR White Paper]

According to the White Paper, E-cigarettes are manufactured in such a way as to resemble conventional tobacco products such as cigarettes, pipes and cigars and common gadgets such as flash drives, flashlights or pens. Currently there are more than 460 different e-cigarette brands with varied configurations of nicotine delivery available in the market.

Like opium about which one had written in these columns in the first week of this month, isn’t tobacco, yet another symbol of our colonial subjugation? Yes it is. Tobacco cultivation was introduced in India by the Portuguese in the 16th or 17th century and today it is one of the major cash crops providing four varieties of tobacco- flue cured Virginia tobacco used for cigarettes, Beedi tobacco, cigar filler tobacco and hookah and chewing type tobacco. Andhra Pradesh leads in tobacco production. According to a recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India [Assocham] the tobacco sector “contributes a whopping Rs. 11,79,498 crore to Indian economy and employs an estimated 4.57crore.”

We in fact need to compare the above figures with the pain tobacco has caused. The 2014 report by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare ”Economic Burden of Tobacco related Diseases in India”, there are disturbing figures. The report says “The total economic cost attributable to tobacco use from all diseases in India in the year 2011 for persons aged 35-69 amounted to Rs.1,04,500crores [US $ 22.4 billion], of which 16%was direct cost and 84% was indirect cost. Direct medical cost of hospital care and treatment of tobacco attributable diseases amounted to Rs.16,800 crore { $ 3.6 billion], and associated indirect morbidity cost amounted to RS.14,700 crore[ $ 3.1 ]. The cost from premature mortality was Rs.73,000 crore [ $ 15.6 billion]. Worldwide there are more than 7 million deaths per year due to tobacco related diseases. India according to the World Health Organization [WHO] has 120 million smokers and more than a million die each year due to tobacco in India. It may be too cruel to ask,”Do we employ 4.57 crore Indians in the tobacco industry to kill more than seven million people every year?”

Human misery, death and bereavements cannot be calculated in terms of money. Tobacco and nicotine have been responsible for untold human misery. There are also other major damages done to our environment if we take into account the number of trees cut to cure tobacco, smoke from those fumes and passive smoking. By banning e-cigarettes only a part of the battle against tobacco has been won. The final victory will be achieved only when the government finally takes the courageous step of banning tobacco!


The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.