It is a common sight these days: people carrying a pen-like electronic gadget, which they then put to their lips and puff on, or, according to the experts, practise “vaping”.

There is no scientific evidence to substantiate their use as an alternative to conventional tobacco- ministry

These electronic cigarettes, which work on a liquid refill cartridge system, sprouted on the local market last year and as sales keep increasing, so is the controversy over its bearing on users’ health.

Electronic cigarettes are legal to import, own and use in Malta as in all other European countries but, earlier this week, the consumer’s watchdog issued a warning against the use of such devices noting that “inhaling vapours could not in any way be considered healthy”.

However, a user said that e-cigarettes allowed him to reduce his nicotine intake by choosing liquids with lower concentration of nicotine until he went practically nicotine free. The price of refills varies between €3.50 and €20.

“It has weaned me off cigarettes. My addiction has practically gone. Before I used two packets of cigarettes a day, now I no longer feel the urge to do so and just vape in the evenings. I feel much healthier now,” Jason Borg, 39, said.

Importer Sergio Curmi said that over the last months there had been a surge in demand.

“Even some doctors are telling their patients that if they have to smoke, they’re better off smoking electronic cigarettes,” he said.

The Health Ministry would not be drawn into this issue. “We are not aware of such instances but it is incorrect if they (doctors) are doing so because, to date, there is no scientific evidence to substantiate their use as an alternative to conventional tobacco,” a spokesman said. He added that “policies may be changed if new scientific evidence develops”.

The Environmental Health Directorate is following the line of action proposed by the World Health Organisation, that “no rigorous, peer-reviewed studies have been conducted showing that the electronic cigarette is a safe and effective nicotine replacement therapy”.

It does not discount the possibility that the electronic cigarette could be useful as a smoking cessation aid.

So far, there are no studies showing the long-term health effects of the e-cigarette.

The US Food and Drug Administration says there are far too many unanswered questions about the safety of the product.

A recent Boston University study claims that the vapour vemitted by electronic cigarettes is significantly less harmful than the smoke produced by tobacco cigarettes because no carbon monoxide and tar are emitted.

The directorate in Malta is more concerned about the illegal advertisements being made rather than the use itself.

It has been issuing warnings that, for purposes of advertising and their use in public places, electronic cigarettes are considered tobacco products, even though some cartridge refills are non-nicotine and non-tobacco based.

“Using an electronic cigarette is not illegal; advertising and smoking in public places is,” a directorate spokesman said.

The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority said that all electronic cigarettes should have the CE mark on them.

What is an e-cigarette?

The e-cigarette was invented in China in the late 1990s by a chemist and engineer, Hon Lik, who had seen his father die of cancer. A smoker himself, he wanted to find a way to obtain nicotine but without the risk to health.

By early 2006, e-cigarettes were available in the UK and the US. There are now more than three million US users.

A standard electronic cigarette has three parts: a container for the refill liquid, a rechargeable battery and an atomiser, which is a tiny coil of wire that heats the liquid and vaporises it.

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