By Aditya Kalra
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India is considering a ban on electronic cigarettes over the risks to public health that they may cause, a senior Health Ministry official told Reuters.
The World Health Organization (WHO) in August called for stiff regulation of e-cigarettes as well as bans on indoor use, in the latest bid to control the booming $3 billion global market.
Such devices use battery-powered cartridges to produce a nicotine-laced vapor but there is a lack of long-term scientific research that confirms they are safe. Some critics fear they could lead to nicotine addiction and tobacco smoking.
"We see it as a backdoor entry, it doesn't have tobacco but it has nicotine," said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
"Expert panels have recommended regulation or a ban. India cannot regulate easily," the official added, saying that the government would consider the ban in the next month or two.
The European Union has agreed to requirements around advertising and packaging to ensure the safety and quality of e-cigarettes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed banning sales to anyone under 18.
Up to 900,000 Indians die every year of tobacco-related diseases, and that number could reach 1.5 million by 2020 if users do not kick the habit, the International Tobacco Control Project estimates.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is taking several steps to curb India's tobacco consumption. It has increased taxes on tobacco products and ordered companies to print more health warnings on packages.
While most e-cigarettes are imported and sold by small firms, India's largest cigarette maker ITC started selling the devices in August.
ITC did not comment directly on the likely ban, but said India should not be left behind in technology development of such products.
India has also proposed a ban on the sale of single conventional cigarettes. The official said the ministry had proposed amendments to tobacco control laws and a cabinet note had been circulated for comments.
Indians smoked more than 100 billion cigarettes in 2012, according to Euromonitor International, and it is common for vendors to sell them individually.
The WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control states that countries "shall endeavor" to prohibit such sales as it makes them more affordable for minors. India is a party to the convention.
A single cigarette costs about 10 rupees (16 cents) in the capital, New Delhi, compared with a pack of 20 that costs 190 rupees ($3).
The ITC declined to comment on the proposed ban. The Tobacco Institute of India (TII), an industry body, said the proposed law would not be easily enforceable and would lead to retailers being harassed.
(Editing by Douglas Busvine, Robert Birsel)