Revolution in smoking aims to stub out cigarettes -- with the help of tobacco firms
We are on the brink of a revolution in smoking which aims to eradicate the cigarette.
Companies, including some of the biggest names in tobacco, are poised to launch a generation of devices that mimic the experience of smoking without the lethal effects.
One, being developed by a 29-year-old Oxford graduate, has attracted the attention of BAT, one of the world's largest tobacco companies, which has bought the rights to market it. A profusion of electronic and other devices has appeared in the past year, thanks to a legal loophole which allows them to be sold freely so long as they do not make any health claim .
An estimated 10 million "e-cigarettes", which are shaped to look like the real thing and simulate smoking by heating nicotine to produce an inhaled mist, have been sold worldwide.
Other devices, similar to asthma inhalers, deliver the nicotine as a vapour or powder drawn directly into the mouth or lungs.
Regulators are considering ways to bring the new devices within the law, but campaigners are insisting on "light-touch" controls which could make it legal to market them in newsagents and supermarkets alongside cigarettes. Pure nicotine, though highly addictive, has few side effects and a low risk of overdose -- it is the tobacco in which it is contained that is lethal.
But the idea has caused alarm among some experts, who say it is wrong to promote nicotine dependency.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in the UK, which licenses medicines, has begun a programme of research following a consultation exercise on the risks to consumers from the products and the impact of regulation. It is due to make a final decision on how to regulate them by spring 2013.
The Royal College of Physicians in Britain has called for the devices to be made more widely available.
In a 2007 report, the college argued for a "harm reduction" approach which aimed to move smokers on to safer substitutes, to supplement the existing therapeutic approach using nicotine patches and gum to help smokers to give up.
Responses to the MHRA consultation mostly supported a form of "light touch" regulation which would ensure the devices were safe but would not deter companies by requiring them to conduct expensive trials as for medicines.
But some organisations fear that e-cigarettes are bypassing all legislative controls and pose a safety risk to users and a danger to children.
Some say e-cigarettes and similar devices should be licensed as medicines, like nicotine patches and gum.
But experts say this would effectively amount to a ban, as manufacturers would not pay for the necessary clinical trials.
A major anti-smoking campaign now underway here focusses on driving home the message that smoking will kill one in every two smokers. It features the stories of smokers and the effects on smokers' families.
Most e-cigarettes are made in China. A survey for Ash, the anti-smoking charity, found one smoker in 10 had tried them and 3pc had continued to use them.
A spokesman for Ash said: "E-cigarettes have taken off in the last year. Companies are taking the opportunity to market them while they are unregulated.
"We think light touch regulation is a sensible way forward. Compared to smoking, they are not nearly as harmful.
"But there is still too much uncertainty about their safety."