By the end of this year, over a million people will be using e-cigarettes in the UK. But while some believe the electronic alternative to tobacco could help save hundreds of thousands of lives others think they just normalise what looks like smoking and may be unsafe. It is also feared that people who have kicked the habit could be tempted to return after using the device socially.
The e-cigarette comes in two parts. In one end, liquid nicotine, in the other a rechargeable battery with an atomiser. When the user sucks, the liquid nicotine is vaporised and absorbed through the mouth. What looks like smoke is largely water vapour. Because there is no tobacco in e-cigarettes, there is no tar and it is the tar in ordinary cigarettes that kills.
If all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes we would save 5 million deaths in people who are alive today”
But if all the smokers in Britain were to quit, the exchequer would lose billions in taxation.
Professor John Britton
Royal College of Physicians
The e-cigarette market is growing fast. A survey by the charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) suggests 700,000 people in the UK were using e-cigarettes last year.
The charity estimates that number will reach a million in 2013 and some medical experts see huge potential benefits.
"Nicotine itself is not a particularly hazardous drug," says Professor John Britton, who leads the tobacco advisory group for the Royal College of Physicians.
"It's something on a par with the effects you get from caffeine.
"If all the smokers in Britain stopped smoking cigarettes and started smoking e-cigarettes we would save 5 million deaths in people who are alive today. It's a massive potential public health prize."
There are however concerns about the safety and regulation of e-cigarettes.
They can legally be sold to children. There are few restrictions on advertising. Critics say some of the adverts glamorise something that looks like smoking.
Unlike patches and gum, e-cigarettes are not regulated like medicines. It means there are no rules for example about the purity of the nicotine in them.
So are e-cigarettes safe?
"The simple answer is we don't know," says Dr Vivienne Nathanson from the British Medical Association (BMA).
EU Set To Ban
According to a leaked memo highlighted in the tobacco analysis blog, the EU is likely to recommend a ban on electronic cigarettes shortly.
The EU plans to ban the marketing of all nicotine containing products which have not been approved as a medicine. This, of course, includes electronic cigarettes.
This is despite extensive research and scientific opinion that the device is likely to be many, many times safer than cigarettes.
The EU will be well aware of this research after presentations made by the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association (ECITA) in Brussels.
No Surprise from an Agency that Tippexes away the Truth
The ban will come as no surprise to those who have followed the smokeless tobacco debate.
Like e-cigarettes, the safest forms of smokeless tobacco is far, far safer than smoking tobacco, and there is decades of evidence to prove the point.
And the EU has disgraced itself in its handling of the debate.
In its effort to ban smokeless debate despite scientific evidence that smokeless tobacco is safe, the EU allegedly rewrote a report on smokeless tobacco removing all positive comments.
When it became apparent that one positive comment had been removed, the agency was said to resort to tippexing the final positive comment.
But is this really about health and safety issues?
Could it be that governments across Europe are worried about the enormous loss of revenue from tobacco tax as millions of people stop smoking?