YOU CAN wonder if we held back this story till the time Anbumani Ramadoss had collected the last of his belongings from the Health Ministry. But you would be only half right. We also wanted it to coincide with World No Tobacco Day, the launch occasion chosen for the one thing that could show the Indian Anti-Tobacco Act a middle-finger with all the casualness of the hammock-borne—the e-cigarette.
A Chennai-based company has started selling an electronic cigarette that might look, smoke and even hit you like a regular filter-tipped, but will be able to duck the smoking ban without having to slip the bartender a 100 buck note for looking the other way. And while we don’t think the authorities in India will go back on the law just because Ramadoss’ electorate has so graciously relieved him of his responsibility for the nation’s inhalation in public spaces, the e-cigarette is already welcoming converts from the analog cigarette fold in Europe.
The e-cigarette, to be called Steamz in India, is actually a plastic tube which has a rechargeable battery and contains liquid nicotine in a cavity at the filter end which is delivered to the smoker when he takes a drag, as in a regular cigarette. The nicotine dose is available in mint and coffee flavours. The price: Rs 1,998 for a ‘pack’ good for 300 smokes. The selling proposition, though, is that the little stick delivers the high of smoking, but without burning any tobacco, thus keeping the ‘smoke’ free of harmful tar and about 4,000 other chemicals (yes, 4,000) and letting you exhale coloured water vapour instead of the noxious fumes that get you those angry glares.
It turns some of the other paraphernalia obsolete as well. All you need to do is stick the battery end into a USB terminal to charge, and you don’t need to fumble around with matches, lighters, flint stones or convex mirrors in sunny desperation (a la Archimedes). Still better, you will never need to stub it out midway. If you need to walk into a movie hall, just stop puffing.
YOUR NEW HALO
It’s a good way to beat the ban—because the Anti-Tobacco Act deals with smoking tobacco in the form of cigarettes, cigars, bidis and the like, or with the aid of pipes, wrappers or other such instruments. But the thing is, the e-cigarette does not contain any tobacco. Nor does it involve any act that might be proven to be the equivalent of ‘lighting’ it. In other words, you can puff your way through a tiresome flight without anyone bothering you. Or at a restaurant, hotel lobby or pub—they can’t object, the halo around your head would be a cloud of veritable water vapour.
And water, everybody agrees, is good. They could condense it to verify. Ask them to get a cold saucer from the fridge. But it won’t come to that, going by the experience of Sunil Kumar, a director at SYK, the firm that markets the Indian e-cigarette. He claims that the product has been test smoked aboard aircraft and in five-star lobbies with only a small explanation to gain approval. That’s the good thing about the ‘rule of law’—you can always demand strict adherence to it. “In legal terms,” says SYK’s Kumar, “smoking means lit tobacco… the e-cigarette doesn’t have tobacco and it involves no lighting.”
You might encounter some ol’ grumps who don’t respect the finer aspects of law. That’s always a risk. But Kumar is optimistic that the risk will drop off once the product achieves success. “Once it becomes popular, and people and establishments catch up with it,” he says, “it will be allowed.” The confusion, according to him, can be traced to the physical design of the e-cigarette. A white little stick complete with a ‘filter tip’, it looks like the real thing. The effort evidently is to mimic the smoking experience as closely as possible without falling afoul of the tobacco ban.
That’s half the fun, really. That also makes it the perfect device to catch all those annoying folk who pretend to be ‘allergic’ to cigarette smoke.
Selling the concept will take time. Debjit Banerjee, associate director, F&B, The Park, New Delhi, says he is not familiar with the e-cigarette. “As a hotel, we don’t allow smoking anywhere on our property. But adopting the e-cigarette depends on whether the government allows it or not. If the government clears it, the Park group will surely take it up,” he says with enthusiasm.
There are other ways to beat the smoking ban as well. Unhappy with being packed like sardines into tiny smoking chambers at pubs and offices (at least one of which, at an ad agency, is reported to be designed like a coffin, with a ceiling poster depicting mourners all around pushing down dirt), smokers have turned inventive.
In the US and Europe, smokers are already pouring themselves their fix by mixing liquid nicotine with their martinis. Among other things, a Dutch company called United Drinks and Beauty Corp has been selling Liquid Smoking, a nicotine drink that has now made its way into British pubs. The company claims that the drink, which is sold in the shape of cigarette-shaped cans, is actually made from South African herbs but still delivers ‘a euphoric sense of calming and relaxation’ at par with a nicotine high—without smoke in the eyes or tar in the lungs.
That’s a solution that doesn’t test the limits of sanity, unlike a Southampton pub keeper who was so miffed with the smoking ban that he had the king of an uninhabited island, Redonda, appoint his pub its ‘embassy’, thus conferring diplomatic immunity on it. According to a report in The Sun, embassy territory is officially classified as ‘foreign soil’—free of the host country’s legislative lunacies (taxes included).
Another pub owner actually took advantage of a loophole in the British anti-smoking law by turning her pub into a ‘smoking research centre’. This was done through the expedient of having all smokers fill out a questionnaire on the plea that it’s for research purposes. Yet others, in keeping
with fashion’s return to the past, are trying to re-invent a relish of Victorian gents—snuff. Fine ground smokeless tobacco, that is.
And since we live in do-it-yourself times, drink mixing websites even offer recipes on brewing your own nicotine drink with amaretto, grounded coffee and maple syrup—something we didn’t have the heart to attempt, considering it’s supposed to look like molten cigarettes.
In India, though, there is only a slim possibility of pub owners going to such extents to comply with the law and all its loopholes, especially at a time when corporate office policymakers are shunning smokers with such shameless zeal. To the alarm of all nicotine lovers, even staircase landings and office terraces are being declared smoke-free zones nowadays.
But then, that’s what gives the e-cigarette such a good shot. Water vapour is easy to explain to overzealous cops and bartenders. It sure beats reeking of stale tobacco smoke all the time. And it gets the job done.
What ‘job’, you ask? The job of helping people keep their nerve, that is. To quote Elizabeth Taylor, “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they would have some pretty annoying virtues.” Moreover, without vices, things around the bar counter would be pretty damned boring—we wouldn’t want that, now would we?
Note: the views expressed here are entirely the author’s; neither the magazine nor the publishing house endorses smoking. In fact, the author of this article doesn’t even smoke—the fool