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Health ministry likely to ban ITC’s e-cigarettes

India’s largest cigarette manufacturer ITC’s plan to develop a market for e-cigarettes might hit a roadblock with the Union health ministry planning to impose a ban on all products described as “Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS)”.

In his clearest message yet on the controversy over the safety of ENDS, health minister Harsh Vardhan ruled out their acceptability in the light of research findings by experts which have held that they are no less unsafe than the “real thing”, said a government statement.

The minister, who was addressing global tobacco control experts at the 45th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Barcelona, Spain, said e-cigarettes and similar products push children towards the tobacco habit eventually via nicotine dependence.

India, until recently, had seen very few small players foraying into the e-cigarettes business but ITC, which sells every three cigarettes out of four, forayed into the segment in August.

When contacted, ITC did not comment on the matter.

The Kolkata-based tobacco and hospitality giant forayed into the market with electronic cigarettes, under the Eon brand in August. The products have been designed in-house but are being manufactured in China. The move was fueled by declining volumes of cigarettes on the back of price rise.

At the time of the launch, it was reported that the company was planning to roll out Eon across India in phases. It started out with the market in Kolkata and Hyderabad. Contrary to conventional tobacco cigarettes, e-cigarettes release vapour, instead of smoke, when a nicotine-laced liquid is heated. This is devoid of tar, considered the key harmful component in tobacco cigarettes.

Eon was launched in the market around 10 months after the company forayed into what is termed as nicotine replacement therapy with Kwiknik. According to analysts, the company launched Kwiknik keeping in mind the recent government initiatives to curb tobacco consumption in India.

Cigarettes business is the main profit driver of ITC, according to analysts.

The alternative to cigarettes — their electronic version — is popular in the US and Europe. In India, ITC’s entry marked the first major entry into the nascent market.

“More clarity on the government’s front in order to ban e-cigarettes would make it clear how strong the decision could hit ITC. The company has just entered the market and has long-term plans. But much would depend on how exactly government plans to ban e-cigarettes,” a sector analyst said.

Recently, the government has also made it mandatory for cigarettes manufactures to provide 85 per cent of space of a cigarette pack for health warnings with a blend of pictorial and textual messages. An expert committee constituted by the health ministry has also suggested on a complete ban on the sale of loose cigarettes.

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