In the world’s largest democracy, you can go to jail for selling e-cigarettes. That’s what happened to Parvesh Kumar. After his small shop in the state of Punjab was raided and a drug inspector found one e-cigarette and eight cartridges, Kumar was sentenced to three years in jail and fined $1,500. The judge lectured him, according to a story in the Indian newspaper The Tribune, noting, “offenders involved in promoting and selling such products should be dealt with sternly by law for the welfare of the society.”
Public health officials were delighted with the result. According to the Tribune, Punjab Health Secretary Vini Mahajan said, “Having done well in the field of tobacco control in general, Punjab, with this conviction, has shown the way to the entire country to end the nicotine-delivery devices sold in the form of e-cigarettes.” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Hussan Lal said, “They are marketed as a healthy substitute to cigarettes. There are a lot of misconceptions about their potential benefits but all this is farce. The most important ingredient of e-cigarettes is nicotine.”
The sentence is so extreme it’s hard to comprehend. What was Parvesh Kumar’s offense? Trying to help smokers find a safer alternative. In the state of Punjab, selling vapor products is a crime, but selling combustible cigarettes is perfectly acceptable. If Kumar had stuck to the product known to cause cancer, COPD and heart disease, he would have had nothing to worry about. For now he’s free on bail, hoping for a better result in his appeal to a higher court. His fate is uncertain. Since Kumar was sentenced, Karnataka became the fourth Indian state to ban e-cigs and vape products.
Powerful voices speak out
Dr. Sally Satel wrote about Kumar’s sentence in the Washington Post, “India’s unsubstantiated opposition to vaping is a travesty. Allowing smokers to seek healthier alternatives does not warrant imprisonment. Misinformation about vaping led to the injustice of Mr. Kumar and presents a growing threat to public health everywhere.” Other high-profile supporters of vaping and harm reduction have taken up Kumar’s cause too, calling for the Punjab government to reconsider the sentence. David Sweanor, University of Ottawa law professor and tobacco control expert, said, “It shouldn’t even be a crime in the first place, but a three-year jail sentence is so extreme and unjust it amounts to a serious and arbitrary abuse of human rights.”
— Dr Attila Danko (@AtelierDanko) April 17, 2016
Punjab has clearly been influenced by the World Health Organization’s encouragement to governments to strictly regulate tobacco and vaping. According to Jacob Sullum, writing in Reason, “Although the WHO officially supports tobacco harm reduction, its guidelines regarding [e-cigs] leave room for bans as well as regulation. A 2014 report on a conference of the parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) ‘invites Parties to consider prohibiting or regulating [e-cigs], including as tobacco products, medicinal products, consumer products, or other categories, as appropriate, taking into account a high level of protection for human health.’”
— Clive Bates (@Clive_Bates) April 17, 2016
Coincidentally, the FCTC is holding its seventh Conference of the Parties (COP7) this fall in India. All 180 countries that are signatories of the tobacco control treaty will be represented. These extremists need to be embarrassed and shamed for encouraging an atmosphere that leads to jail sentences for peddling harm reduction products. Perhaps protests of this bizarre, unjust sentence can be organized at the event.