NEW DELHI - India's federal health ministry called Tuesday for stopping the sale or import of electronic cigarettes and heat-not-burn tobacco devices that companies like Philip Morris International Inc. were planning to launch in the country.
India has stringent laws to deter tobacco use, which the government says kills more than 900,000 people every year. But the country still has 106 million adult smokers, second only to China, according to the World Health Organization.
In an advisory to state governments, the health ministry said such devices were a "great health risk" and it was possible that children and nonsmokers using such products could switch to cigarettes once they became addicted to nicotine.
The government took a position on such products with tobacco giant Philip Morris planning to launch its iQOS smoking device in India. Reuters reported in June that Philip Morris was working toward achieving iQOS's acceptability as a reduced-risk product in the country.
Philip Morris says the sleek, penlike iQOS heats but does not burn tobacco, producing a nicotine-containing vapor rather than smoke and making it less harmful than conventional cigarettes. The company wants to one day stop selling cigarettes altogether.
The health ministry asked Indian states to "ensure" that electronic nicotine delivery systems including e-cigarettes — devices that use a nicotine-laced liquid — and heat-not-burn devices are not sold, manufactured, imported or advertised.
Such devices, the ministry said, "are a great health risk to public at large, especially to children, adolescents, pregnant women and women of reproductive age."
Philip Morris did not respond to Reuters queries. ITC, India's leading cigarette maker, which also sells e-cigarettes, also did not respond.
A senior health official said the government was "sending a strong message" about how such products are harmful for the public.
Last year, a New Delhi resident filed public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court calling for regulation of e-cigarettes. The court last week asked the federal health ministry to say when it would announce regulatory measures for such devices.
"The case was filed to bring out the absolute absence of regulation. It is now critical that stringent implementation measures are taken," said Bhuvanesh Sehgal, a Delhi-based lawyer who argued in the case.
In recent years, the Indian government has intensified its tobacco-control efforts, raising cigarette taxes, ordering companies to print bigger health warnings on packs and introducing a quit-smoking helpline.