India's cabinet has approved a ban on the import, production and sale of e-cigarettes, the country's finance minister said, citing a public health risk to young people from "vaping".
The government of Narendra Modi approved an emergency order, drawn up by the health ministry, that could see first-time offenders jailed for up to a year and fined 100,000 rupees (£1,100).
Simply possessing e-cigarettes or similar devices will also be an offence, health minister Harsh Vardhan said in a tweet, punishable by up to six months in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees (£550).
Speaking at a news conference in Delhi on Wednesday, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the decision had been taken because e-cigarettes were becoming a growing health risk to India's youth.
Quoting unspecified reports, Ms Sitharaman said e-cigarettes appeared to be becoming a “style statement”.
“Reports say that there are some who are probably getting into the habit of e-cigarettes as it seems cool," she said.
A government body first published a report recommending a ban on vaping in May this year, saying there was insufficient research into the health impacts of smoking e-cigarettes to guarantee it was safe.
The white paper by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said e-cigarettes contain not just a highly addictive nicotine solution, but also other potentially dangerous and breathable substances such as flavouring agents and vapourisers.
The ICMR report cited studies by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into vaping, and the deaths of at least six people in the US reportedly due to mysterious e-cigarette-related illnesses have led to growing calls for bans worldwide.
Critics, however, said the ICMR white paper did not take into consideration the relative health benefits of tar-less e-cigarettes compared to the smoking of traditional cigarettes.
Last week, Public Health England issued a statement saying that "vaping isn’t completely risk free, but is far less harmful than smoking tobacco".
"There is no situation where it would be better for your health to continue smoking rather than switching completely to vaping," it said.
Vaping is already banned across much of India, with 16 states having already passed laws against e-cigarettes.
But an industry association accused the government of dressing up an economic decision as a matter of public health. Ahead of today's ban, Samrat Choudhery, founder of Association of Vapers India, said: "The government owns 28 per cent of ITC, a leading manufacturer of cigarettes, which means it is directly profiteering from the cigarette trade, along with earning [millions] in taxes on cigarettes."
In her announcement today, Ms Sitharaman noted that "it is believed that there are more than 400 brands [on the market], none of which is manufactured yet in India".
If the government wants to make its ban permanent, it will have to replace the ordinance approved on Wednesday with a full bill and get it endorsed by parliament within six months.
That shouldn't be too great a hurdle for Mr Modi, however, since he won re-election in May with a sizeable outright majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house.
India has 106 million adult smokers, second only to China in the world, making it a lucrative market for companies that had been developing new vaping products.
These include the US giants Philip Morris and Juul. Philip Morris had plans to launch its heat-not-burn smoking device in India, according to the Reuters news agency, while Juul had plans to launch its e-cigarette in the market and has hired several senior executives in recent months. Neither company was inclined to comment on the news of the ban.
This article originally appeared at The Independent website