Page last updated at 00:57 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Proof lacking on e-cigarettes' safety, experts warn

By Michelle Roberts
Health reporter, BBC News

Electronic cigarette
'e-cigarettes' look real, but are battery-powered and typically made of stainless steel

There is a worrying lack of safety data on electronic cigarettes, despite their growing popularity with the public, two leading Greek researchers have warned.

In the British Medical Journal, they say that without more evidence it is impossible to know if such products actually do more harm than good.

Some studies have raised safety fears, but retailers argue e-cigarettes are a healthy alternative to the real thing.

Users can inhale nicotine without tar, tobacco or carbon monoxide.

The Department of Health suggested consumers "exercise caution".

The Department of Health is not aware of any evidence about the long-term safety of e-cigarettes and, as such, would suggest that consumers exercise caution
Government spokeswoman

The report authors said consumers should stop using the devices until ongoing safety studies reported back within the next year.

The World Health Organisation is among those to raise concerns about the safety of these new types of cigarette substitute, which deliver a nicotine hit in a fine vapour.

And in the past year, US regulators have detained and blocked numerous shipments of e-cigarettes at borders because the devices are not approved.

In the UK, it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes as a "quit smoking" aid, although this is something that is being reviewed.

They are widely available to buy as a "cigarette alternative" over the internet and are sold in a number of places, including some bars and clubs.

Andreas Flouris and Dimitris Oikonomou, from the Institute of Human Performance and Rehabilitation in Greece, say there have been three main reports on e-cigarette safety - one by US regulators, one by a publicly-funded Greek research institute, and another by a private company in New Zealand.

Scant data

The US Food and Drug Administration report expressed concern after finding different brands of the battery operated device delivered markedly different amounts of nicotine vapour with each puff.

The FDA also detected traces of powerful cancer-causing chemicals.

The Greek institute Demokritos took a neutral stance on the products and did not find any evidence of chemical contamination.

Private enterprise Health New Zealand did find cancer-causing chemicals in products, but concluded that overall e-cigarettes should be recommended on the basis of the health risks associated with smoking normal cigarettes.

The researchers told the BMJ: "The scarce evidence indicates the existence of various toxic and carcinogenic compounds in e-cigarettes, albeit in possibly much smaller concentrations than in traditional cigarettes."

Smokers' views on e-cigarettes

Callum Reckless, director at Smart Smoker, a company that sells e-cigarettes, said: "I believe that electronic cigarettes are indeed a safer alternative to smoking real cigarettes."

He welcomed more research into the safety of the products.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said it had been working with regulators to test the products and that none of those tested so far complied with product safety regulations.

She said the government was working to ensure e-cigarettes were labelled and sold appropriately.

"The Department of Health is not aware of any evidence about the long-term safety of e-cigarettes and, as such, would suggest that consumers exercise caution.

"E-cigarettes are not promoted by, or available on, the NHS," she said.

Deborah Arnott, of the charity Action on Smoking and Health, said: "We do need better data on safety and appropriate regulation for e-cigarettes, although these products are certain to be significantly less hazardous than cigarettes, which lead to premature death in half all long-term users."

She said there was demand for the products from smokers - UK estimates suggest around one in ten has already tried them.

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