Inveterate smoker Manisha Singh (not her real name) had been struggling for years to kick the habit. So when her friend introduced her to electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), Manisha sensed there could be a way out yet.
E-cigarettes are not made of tobacco. They are smoke-free electronic (battery-powered) devices that vaporise nicotine, unlike conventional cigarettes that turn nicotine in tobacco and hundreds of other harmful substances into smoke for inhalation.
E-cigarettes are available in different flavours like strawberry, coffee, vanila and menthol. And their tagline – ‘Stop smoking and start vaporising’ – seems to have struck a chord in many smokers. So much so that e-cigarettes are now retailed by thousands of neighbourhood paan-and-cigarette shops and websites.
Mucchad Paanwala, one such well-known shop in south Mumbai, has been selling about 2-4 packs of e-cigarettes a day (or 60-120 packs a month). Similarly, Jagdish Chauhan of Yamus Paan Shop in north-west Mumbai has been selling 50-75 packs of e-cigarettes every month.
He says local brands like BQD and Fly Smoker are the first ones to fly off his shelves as they are available in the price range of `300-400, much lower than recognised brands like Green Smoke, WhitECloud that retail around `2,000 a pack.
According to Euromonitor, the global e-cigarettes market was estimated at $2 billion in 2011, about the size of the global small cigars market. The popularity of the new product in India though has grown in just over a year – no one quite knew e-cigarettes in 2011.
There are reasons other than price that have made e-cigarettes popular. Dr Pratit Samdani, associate professor of medicine at Jaslok Bhatia and Saifi Hospital, says, “We’ve been recommending nicotine chewing gums and e-cigarettes to our patients who have not been able to give up smoking. They are safer alternatives as they help in cutting down the nicotine intake.”
Relative adjectives like ‘safer’ are not readily accepted by everyone. “E-cigarettes still have nicotine content in them. The instant you know it’s less harmful, you end up smoking it more,” says a Mumbai-based doctor.
Research worldwide has made effectiveness of e-cigarettes a talking point, but there seems near consensus that the product is not as harmful as a regular cigarette.
Referring to a research report, Dr Alpa Dalal, consultant pulmonologist at Dr L H Hiranandani Hospital, says, “Nothing is 100% safe. Further testing is needed to know effects of long-term use.
E-cigarettes are said to contain ingredients that are safe for human consumption. Research shows they don’t contain most of the toxins or levels of carcinogens that are found in tobacco cigarettes. We’re reasonably certain they are considerably safer than tobacco cigarette smoking.”
Bangalore-based Dr Ajai Kumar, chairman of HCG Hospital, says, “We’ve been using e-cigarettes in the process of de-addiction. So far, no harmful effects have been noted. We believe that the product is safe to use.”
Other doctors sound a note of caution though. E-cigarettes as a de-addiction strategy are fine, but users need to be careful that they don’t get addicted to the new product as well, they say.
In the US, which accounts for 25% of global sales of e-cigarettes, several tobacco players are launching their own brands of e-cigarettes. It may not be long before Indian tobacco firms follow suit, some people say.
That may well be an overly optimistic wish. For, users such as Manisha are ditching e-cigarettes already. She quit them after just three weeks. “To be sure, the alternative cigarette helped me to cut down on my regular cigarette consumption. But then, I had to deal with lots of side-effects like skin rashes and loss of appetite.”
But such symptoms manifest even when regular smokers quit cigarettes, say experts. Dr Samdani says, “There are some initial side-effects but nothing alarming has been noted.”