Last updated: June, 2019
May 31 is observed every year as the World Anti-Tobacco Day. On May 31 of 2019, The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the apex bio-medical research body of the Indian government, issued a formal recommendation to ban the sale of e-cigarettes and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) through-out India. The ICMR recommendation has come at an opportune time since, very recently, the Delhi High Court has stayed the operation of a Central Government circular imploring various Indian States to ban ENDS.
In this post, we have analyzed the current regulatory framework for the regulation of e-cigarettes and ENDS (hereinafter referred collectively as ENDS for convenience) to evaluate its scope and limitations, as well as decode the method of current regulation of ENDS under Indian law. We have also highlighted the consequences of violation of the ban, if any.
Legal and regulatory framework
Under Indian law, there are five distinct regulatory buckets in which ENDS may fall:
- ENDS as a combination product of drug and medical device
- ENDS as a tobacco product
- ENDS (nicotine) as food
- ENDS (nicotine) as a poison
- ENDS (nicotine) as an insecticide
We will deal with each regulatory bucket in the paragraphs below.
Combination of Drug and Medical Device
Preparations of nicotine are regulated as a drug in India. In fact, the sale of gums and lozenges containing more than 2 mg of nicotine requires a retail drug license.
As per a survey carried by the author, most States in India have regulated ENDS as a drug (since substances and devices are deemed to be drugs in India). Under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 and its rules (“Drug Laws“), a license is required to import, manufacture and sell drugs. Wherever State Governments have banned ENDS, they have done so by refusing to issue a license to undertake any commercial activity related to ENDS on the grounds that ENDS is not approved for sale as a drug. This position has been endorsed by the Central Government as well, who had released in advisory for all States in India to that effect in August 2018.
Import, manufacture or sale of ENDS in violation of Drug Laws could result in confiscation, fine and imprisonment for the company involved as well as the person in charge of the operations of the company.
However, two separate Delhi High Court orders have raised serious questions over the legal basis of the ban on ENDS. In Piush Ahulawalia v. Union of India, the Delhi High Court clarified that the Central Government’s advisory was not binding, and therefore the State Governments were free to chart their own course in terms of banning (or not banning) ENDS. In Focus Brand Trading India Pvt. Ltd. and Anr v. DGHS and Ors., the Delhi High Court went a step ahead and questioned whether ENDS could be regulated as the drug in the first place. The March 2019 order passed in this matter effectively brings into question any ban enforced on ENDS on the assumption that ENDS is a drug. A Customs notification released in November 2018 had made it mandatory that import consignments of ENDS would require prior approval of Additional Drugs Controller, Customs. The said notification has also been stayed by the March 2019 order.
In the author’s own considered opinion, however, the government is well within its powers to regulate ENDS as a drug. It is a fact that nicotine is a drug. As per the current construct of Drug Laws, a drug when consumed for non-medicinal purpose would remain a drug and be regulated as one. Therefore, what is actually left to be established whether the system i.e. ENDS is drug or not. As most readers are aware, ENDS is just a system that delivers nicotine. Therefore, it is not a chemical but a device. Drug Laws do not regulate all devices. They regulate notified devices only and ENDS is not a notified device. Therefore, ENDS sans nicotine cannot be said to be regulated under the Drug Laws. But a combination of ENDS with nicotine (i.e. refill) should certainly qualify as a drug. There are enough instances where such combination products have been regulated as drugs in India in the past. For instance, a Glucometer by itself is not a drug (at least not until January 1, 2020). But a Glucometer when sold along with glucose strips is regulated as a drug, because glucose strips are regulated as drugs. This analogy squarely applies to ENDS sold with nicotine refills.
Having said that, what is important to remember that the Drugs Laws do not ban ENDS with nicotine refills. Therefore, it is possible to structure business operations in a manner that it would be lawful to carry out the business of ENDS with nicotine refills under a drug license in India.
ENDS as a Tobacco product
Most jurisdictions around the world, including the US and Europe, regulate ENDS as a tobacco product. In India, tobacco products are regulated by law, but in a limited manner. The Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 and its rules (“Tobacco Laws”) regulate advertisement, sale to minors and labelling of cigarettes and tobacco products, but stop short of giving power to the government to ban a tobacco product in India. In other words, the Tobacco Laws in India impose compliance requirements for cigarettes and tobacco products, but the government cannot use it to ban import, manufacture or sale of tobacco product in India so long as the tobacco products are compliant to the requirements stipulated by law. Interestingly, the definition of ‘tobacco product’ under Tobacco Laws is exhaustive, and it means any product that is listed in the Schedule to the main Act. ENDS is not listed in that Schedule yet. Therefore, it is strongly arguable that Tobacco Laws in India do not apply to ENDS at all.
Suffice it is to say that the Tobacco Laws, as they exist today, do not (read cannot) ban the sale of ENDS with nicotine refills.
ENDS as food
Food in India is regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and the rules and regulations made under it (“Food Laws”). The definition of “food” under India’s Food Laws extends to substances in the form of liquid, gas or vapour. Therefore, nicotine, when consumed in form of gas or vapour, may qualify as food. The consumption of nicotine as a food ingredient has been specifically banned under Food Laws. States such as Tamil Nadu and Union Territories like New Delhi have also issued notifications (1, 2) banning “all food products chewable or otherwise… containing tobacco and/or nicotine as ingredients” in public interest for successive periods of one year.
This makes it unequivocally clear that any food containing nicotine cannot be sold in India. It is but natural to conclude that the language of the ban would engulf ENDS with nicotine refills as well. A violation of Food Laws could result in confiscation, fine and imprisonment for the company involved as well as the person in charge of the operations of the company.
However, the ban on products containing nicotine imposed through food laws is not without controversy. Over the last few years, different High Courts have given contrary decisions on whether tobacco products should be regulated exclusively under Tobacco Laws or both Tobacco and Food Laws. A February 2019 Madras High Court judgement has highlighted this contrarian position as well. Therefore, until the Supreme Court of India decides on this issue, it is possible to argue today that ENDS with nicotine refills should not be regulated as food, but rather as a tobacco product and be governed exclusively by the Tobacco Laws (which incidentally does not give power to the government to ban ENDS). This means that the ban on nicotine as food or food ingredient may have no bearing on ENDS with nicotine refills.
ENDS as a poison
India regulates import and sale of poisons, in the same manner as drugs. A license is required to import or sell poisons. The difference between drug regulation and poison regulation is that every state has the power to notify any chemical as a poison and regulate it (this legal position has been upheld by Supreme Court as well). Thus, given the ambiguity surrounding the application of drug regulation to ENDS, some states in India have decided to notify nicotine as a poison under the Poisons Act, 1919 and thus regulate ENDS. For instance, Punjab has regulated nicotine as a poison since 2014.
A violation of the Poisons Act, 1919 could result in confiscation, fine and imprisonment.
Again, like drug regulations, the Poisons Act, 1919 does not ban the sale of ENDS with nicotine refills. Therefore, it is possible to structure business operations in a manner that it would be lawful to carry out the business of ENDS with nicotine refills under a poisons license in India.
ENDS (nicotine) as an insecticide
The chemical, Nicotine Sulphate, and preparations made out of it, have been identified as insecticide under the Insecticides Act, 1968. Any person desiring to import or manufacture or sell an insecticide requires regulatory clearance from the government.
However, Insecticides Act, 1968 itself exempts “Any substance specified or included in the schedule or any preparation containing any one or more such substances, if such substance or preparation is intended for purposes other than preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any insects, rodents, fungi, weeds and other forms of plant or animal life not useful to human beings“. Due to the said exemption, the fact that nicotine sulphate and its preparations are insecticides has no bearing for ENDS with nicotine refills, because it not intended to be used as an insecticide.
On the strength of the above analysis, it is difficult to say that trade in ENDS has been conclusively or comprehensively banned in India. It is true that some states such as Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have banned the trade of ENDS within their territory, but such a ban does not appear to have a very strong backing of a statute. This becomes more evident as one peruses the actual text of the administrative orders through which the ban has been imposed, because there is hardly, if any, statutory provision cited in those orders to support the ban and the government appears to be relying solely on “public interest” to support its stance. Numerous media reports (1, 2) have also indicated that the government is struggling to find a way to ban ENDS. Therefore, it appears that the stage is set for the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to clarify the position on the so-called ban on ENDS in India. Until then, it cannot be said that it is not possible to do the business of ENDS in India.