India’s plans to regulate internet content have put its vaping community at loggerheads with its government.
The country’s ministry of electronics and IT proposed changes to India’s Information Technology (IT) Act last December that would require web platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter to remove online content that promotes Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS). As a category, ENDS includes e-cigarettes and other methods of vaping, and currently occupies a legal grey area in India.
The draft regulations, which have been widely criticised as an attempt to over-regulate internet speech, seek to direct platforms to remove content if it fits any item in a long list of criteria, such as if it harms minors, violates the law, or “threatens public health or safety.”
Threats to public safety stipulated by the draft rules include the “promotion of cigarettes or any other tobacco products or consumption of intoxicants” including alcohol, ENDS, and other “products that enable nicotine delivery.”
The inclusion of ENDS in this category, advocates of vaping say, is a major misstep in public health policy, especially in a country where more than a million people die annually due to tobacco use.
“The guideline is very vague,” Samrat Chowdhery, director of the Association of Vapers India (AVI), a consumer rights group that promotes tobacco harm reduction, told Quartz. “It says ‘promotion’ of ENDS. That could also mean (a ban on content) communicating the risk differential—telling people that vaping is substantially safer than smoking.”
AVI has submitted comments to the government about the proposed regulations, arguing that the implication that ENDS is as harmful as cigarettes and alcohol is a “serious case of spreading misinformation.” No Indians, AVI says, “should be denied information or access to technology that can save their lives.”
India, home to over 100 million smokers, is reportedly being targeted by global vaping giants as a burgeoning market for e-cigarettes. The country’s vapour products market was valued at just $15.6 million in 2017, but is expected to grow 60% per year until 2022, according to market research firm Euromonitor International.
E-cigarettes have been banned in eight Indian states, but are not illegal at the national level. The health ministry issued an advisory last August urging states to ban sale and import of e-cigarettes, though the Delhi high court ruled this advisory is not binding to states.
Research confirms vaping is healthier than most forms of tobacco use, with some scientists saying vaping is at least 95% safer than smoking. A recent New England Journal of Medicine study also found that e-cigarettes may even help smokers quit, at nearly twice the success rate as conventional nicotine replacements like patches or gum.
But vaping has its downsides. A recent study indicates e-cigarettes may encourage teenagers to smoke traditional cigarettes. Anxieties have spread in the West about the growing trend of the e-cigarette Juul among young people—a craze that has reached Indian schools now too.
AVI agrees that regulating vaping among youth is important. But “the concern that ENDS are becoming popular among teens can be addressed through sensitive guidelines such as age-verification and responsible communication of risks,” the organisation’s submission says, “instead of imperiling the lives of millions of Indians by denying them access to potentially life-saving information.”
The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a New Delhi-based advocacy organisation, also disagrees with the guidelines’ intervention on vaping. “The insertion of the term ‘public safety’ and the specific reference to vaping products is in conflict with the existing state of the law,” IFF’s written submission to the government says, since there is “no legal prohibition on vaping products by any central agency so far.”
Major companies and organisations have also spoken up about the intermediary guidelines, though mostly from worries over surveillance and protectionism, not public health. Wikipedia, Mozilla, and Microsoft-owned Github recently sent a letter to India’s government that is highly critical of the proposed rules, as did the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry body that represents tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, and Google.