Electronic cigarettes are the future, they argue. Cheaper, cleaner and cooler than smoking, “vaping” – using a vaporiser to inhale nicotine infused with exotic flavours ranging from pina colada to bubblegum – will spell the end of tobacco.
The top tobacco companies are now placing bets on e-smokes, which some analysts predict may outsell conventional cigarettes in 10 years, raising the counter-intuitive prospect that Big Tobacco could actually help people quit smoking.
Celebrities like Bruno Mars and Courtney Love are also endorsing them, a further inducement to makers of iconic cigarette brands like Marlboro and Camel to invest.
Yet e-cigarettes are far from universally accepted as a public health tool; regulators are agonising over whether to restrict them as “gateway” products to nicotine addiction and tobacco smoking, or embrace them as treatments for would-be quitters.
A big issue is the lack of long-term scientific evidence to support the safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes, prompting critics like the British Medical Association (BMA) to warn of the dangers of their unregulated use.
“These devices may also undermine efforts to prevent or stop smoking by making cigarette use seem normal in public and at work,” argues the BMA, which has called for vaping to be banned in public places in Britain, just as smoking is.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is equally wary, saying that until e-cigarettes have been endorsed as safe and effective by national regulators, “consumers should be strongly advised not to use any of these products”.
Supporters of e-cigarettes scoff at suggestions they are a hazard or could be a slippery slope for previously addiction-free young people to get hooked on nicotine.
There is, they argue, no evidence of any harm from nicotine consumption and it would be crazy to impose tougher restrictions on e-smokes than on toxic “death sticks” that are freely available to buy on almost every street corner worldwide.
A few countries have banned them outright – such as Brazil, Norway and Singapore – while others are opting for varying degrees of regulation, in some cases including limits on advertising and curbs on their use in public places.
France said last month it would impose the same restrictions on e-cigarettes as on conventional ones.
The European Union is proposing to limit the amount of nicotine they can hold before regulation kicks in, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far adopted a light touch, saying it plans to regulate e-cigarettes as it does tobacco.