“Electronic cigarette,” a battery-powered device that uses heat to vaporise liquid nicotine stored in its internal reservoir, seems to have found a niche market among a section of smokers in Kerala.
The plastic gadget resembles a cigarette and has a red light-emitting diode at one end to simulate the flickering and glowing tip of a real one while smoking.
The device produces a bluish vapour that resembles cigarette smoke. It promises to give the feeling of smoking a cigarette sans the tar.
In Thiruvananthapuram, the device, paradoxically dubbed “smoke-free health cigarette,” is sold for not less than Rs. 2,000 apiece in a locality known for its thriving contraband goods and pirated film market.
Hollywood actor Johnny Depp has popularised the use of “e-cigarettes” among a section of urban youth through his 2010 movie Tourist.
Traders say most of their customers buy the device for the stated purpose of “quitting smoking.”
A businessman who prefers e-cigarette to regular ones, says it is “convenient.”
“You don't need matchsticks and can light up anywhere. You can take a drag and drop it into your pocket without the fear of burning a hole in it. You can smoke it on trains and buses and in cinemas and escape from being pulled up. And it works out cheaper in the long run,” he says.
Drug enforcers and Customs officials say e-cigarettes available in black market are made in China and sourced chiefly from the Gulf.
The products carry no statutory anti-tobacco health warning scrolls on them. In fact, they are sold in covers, the writing on which claims that “e-cigarette is good for health.”
Law enforcers say the product, sold as a packaged commodity in electronic goods and lifestyle shops, does not carry the maximum retail price or the name and address of the producer or packer.
Drug enforcers say the health effects of e-cigarettes are yet to be quantified.
The Supreme Court ban on orally ingested tobacco products and the “exorbitant” price of prohibitively taxed Indian cigarettes seems to have pushed the sale of e-cigarettes.
A schoolteacher says e-cigarettes are steadily becoming a fad among well-heeled higher secondary and college students. “It is first a curiosity and soon a habit. Use of e-cigarette can lead impressionable teenagers to more serious addictions,” he notes.
A drug enforcer says e-cigarettes can easily be tweaked to smoke marijuana, heroin or hashish.
Officials say “Door-to-door,” an unauthorised courier system widely relied on by Gulf-based migrant workers to send packages home at less than air freight rates, is being used to smuggle such devices and regular contraband cigarettes into the State in trade quantities.
Customs officials say the little-known foreign cigarette brands of dubious quality are retailed on the street at far lower prices than those of Indian-made cigarettes.
The racket costs the government crores of rupees annually in terms of Customs and excise duty.