Chandigarh- Online availability of cheap herbal cigarettes and 'bidis' which are being illegally marketed as healthier alternatives to traditional cigarettes is a matter of concern, warn researchers from the Oral Health Sciences Centre of the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) here.
They said on Wednesday that regulations are urgently needed on sale and marketing of these products under the healthcare category.
These herbal products, containing potentially harmful substances rather than nicotine or tobacco, are being marketed as health-promoting products, said Oral Health Sciences Centre's head Krishan Gauba, one of the researchers.
In their research published online in the journal Tobacco Control, they say the cheap herbal cigarettes and 'bidis' -- a blend of certain herbs rolled in 'tendu' leaves -- are widely available online.
They are often marketed as a safer and healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, along with various other unverified 'health' claims.
The fact is that though these products do not contain any nicotine or tobacco, but have other potentially harmful substances, and may act as a gateway product to conventional tobacco products, explained Arpit Gupta, a faculty from the PGIMER.
He advocated that the sale and marketing of these products must be urgently regulated.
Similar to the illegal sale of imported cigarettes, without adhering to specified health warnings, both in pictorial and text formats, in this region, the herbal cigarettes and 'bidis' are also widely available in the market.
Because of their rising popularity among the youth worldwide, the PGIMER researchers said they wanted to find out the mode of availability and marketing of the herbal cigarettes.
In this study, Google, Yahoo and Bing search engines were used to find retail web pages offering herbal smoking products, including cigarettes and 'bidis'.
Out of the initial 1,044 records retrieved, 73 retail web pages were included in the final analysis which revealed 24 brands, produced by 18 manufacturers, offering 189 different flavours in packs of five to 20 sticks.
Nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of the webpages sold herbal cigarettes; 12 per cent sold herbal 'bidis'; and 26 per cent sold herbal 'shisha' or hookah.
Forty-three websites (59 per cent) spelt out health benefits in their product descriptions, of which 41 per cent claimed the benefits to be based on complementary medicine; the remainder was manufacturers' own claims.
The claims included use as a smoking cessation aid (40 per cent); a stress reliever (19 per cent); and to ease respiratory symptoms, including Covid-19 (15 per cent).
Other claims included use as a mood enhancer; a treatment for jetlag; a concentration or energy booster; and digestive aid.
Only 16 per cent of the webpages clarified that the claims 'had not been evaluated by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration)' or any other regulatory authority.
Fewer than three per cent cautioned: 'Any type of smoking is injurious to health'. And none of the retail web pages listed the possible harmful effects associated with smoking these products.
Two thirds (67 per cent) of the included retail web pages didn't require any proof of age before purchase, and just 22 per cent stated 'not to be sold to minors'.
The average customer rating was 3.61 out of a maximum of five. The pack price (20 sticks) as per the researchers ranges from Rs 51 to Rs 1,830, equivalent to $0.7 to $ 25.
Researcher Ashima Goyal said the study has reported the vast availability of herbal smoking products in various flavours at affordable prices in the e-retail market and unfortunately these are being sold as a safer alternative to tobacco smoking without any age restriction or verification and on the pretext of being nicotine-free.
The study also emphasised that although touted as a healthy alternative to conventional cigarettes, these still contain potentially harmful chemicals and the exhaled carbon monoxide may affect the people in immediate vicinity.
Trade insiders told IANS major cities and towns in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh are markets of illegal sale of the herbal cigarettes, besides imported and cheap Indian brand of cigarettes that are routed from Delhi, posing a threat to the health of smokers who are getting hooked to the cheap quality of brands sans health warnings.
The insiders say Punjab alone has an annual legal market of 120 million cigarettes and the grey market accounts for 20-30 per cent.
Chandigarh and Panchkula cities have an annual legal market of 20 million and 10 million cigarettes respectively, and the illegal market has a share of 15-20 per cent.
Most of the illegal cigarette brands attract the retailers as they are available at a significantly lower price than the legal cigarettes. They are sold in the market at one fifth the price of the legal product, said an investigator. (agency)