India is considering introducing a ban on e-cigarettes saying it fears an "epidemic", potentially jeapordising plans laid by vaping companies to access the lucrative market. India's health ministry proposed the ban on the production and import of electronic cigarettes, in documents seen by the Reuters new agency.
The proposals have stoked fears in India that people caught vaping could be hit with punitive fines or even jail time.
The bans and fines are likely to apply mainly to the production, sale, import and advertisement of e-cigarettes but a source told The Daily Telegraph it is uncertain whether individual vapers will be affected.
The ministry has proposed that the government issue an executive order banning the import and production of the devices in the public interest, saying it was needed to ensure e-cigarettes don't become an "epidemic" among children and young adults.
"E-cigarettes and similar technologies that encourage tobacco use or adversely impact public health are hazardous for an active as well as passive user," the health ministry said in an internal note, which the federal cabinet is expected to consider.
Two months ago, India’s health officials said e-cigarettes would be classified as a 'drug' in India under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act and subsequently should be outlawed.
Citing perceived detrimental effects, the ministry proposed the ban nationally, but some states, including Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Mizoram, Karnataka, and Jammu and Kashmir, have already banned e-cigarettes as an “unapproved drug”.
The government is proposing prison terms of up to three years, with a fine of up to 500,000 rupees (£5,700), for repeat offenders against the new legislation.
First-time offenders would face a prison term of up to one year and a fine of 100,000 rupees. It was not immediately clear whether the draft executive order will face changes, or when it will be approved.
India has around 110 million adult smokers, second only to China in the world, making it a lucrative market for US firms such as Juul and Philip Morris.
More than 900,000 people die each year in the country from tobacco-related illnesses.
The ban on vaping may well be seen as counterproductive in a country where smoking cigarettes is often seen as a social activity.
Smokers, mainly men, can be seen at small tobacco and paan (chewable betel leaf) or chai stalls, puffing away and gossiping during their break times.
Many argue that e-cigarettes would not only encourage a move away from tobacco but help break some of the rituals around smoking.
Carrie L Wade, a senior fellow and the director of harm reduction policy for the R Street Institute, said when the ban was first mooted that the ministry’s findings contradicted most other studies.
“Policymakers should never lose sight of the fact that proper Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems regulation will incentivise smokers to move away from combustible cigarettes”, she wrote in Quartz.
Other proponents of the devices say e-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking tobacco, because users do not inhale the same dangerous matter.
But many tobacco-control activists are opposed to e-cigarettes, saying they could lead to nicotine addiction and push people towards cigarettes.
"There is evidence that these products are a gateway to tobacco products and induce adolescents and young adults to nicotine use leading to addiction," the health ministry said in the document.