Smokers should have more access to electronic cigarettes as a way of trying to quit smoking, an Auckland researcher says.
E-cigarettes are currently in a legal limbo in New Zealand, effectively making their distribution an offence.
But parliament will soon consider Ministry of Health recommendations on the Smoke-free Environments (Controls and Enforcement) Amendment Bill, including a proposal that e-cigarettes containing nicotine be legislated as a tobacco-related product.
An e-cigarette is a small battery-powered cylinder. It attempts to simulate tobacco smoking by producing an inhaled mist that looks and often tastes like smoke.
When a person takes a drag, heat vaporises a liquid solution and the end of the e-cigarette lights up.
The ministry says e-cigarettes are far safer than normal cigarettes, but has warned it is not possible to sell the nicotine they come with.
The Director of Auckland University's Centre for Tobacco Control Research told TV ONE's Breakfast that people are using them to switch off from smoking.
"I would like to see smokers have more access to things like this, alternatives that are safer," Dr Marewa Glover said.
"We've got to get people off the cigarette smoke."
Glover said e-cigarettes were invented in China, are mainly made there, and randomised control trials have not been done to establish them as a medicine.
She said they could be classified as a tobacco product instead.
"It has nicotine in it, nicotine comes from tobacco and it's a manufactured product," Glover said. "So it could come under the Smoke-free Environments Act and then we could just have regulation that recognises it and controls perhaps advertising."
She said the university's clinical trials research unit had looked at blood samples and found people did get nicotine into their blood system from e-cigarettes.
Distributor fears disadvantages
Meanwhile, a distributor of e-cigarettes said the Ministry of Health's recommendations are a step in the right direction but could disadvantage smokers who seek a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
Paul Medarov, Director of PGM International, which distributes the Elusion and Hydro e-cigarettes in New Zealand, said it is significant that the ministry acknowledges that e-cigarettes are "far safer" than traditional ones.
He said treating them as a tobacco-related product rather than a medicine is a step in the right direction because the high compliance costs of being forced to sell them as a medicine would remove e-cigarettes from the market.
"E-cigarettes are not a medicine, nor do they contain tobacco," Medarov said.
"Treating them as such may confuse smokers who are trying to reduce their nicotine dependence, or who want to avoid the health risks associated with traditional cigarettes."
Medarov said he supports heavily restricting the display and promotion of traditional cigarettes "because it is a well known fact that tobacco smoking and second-hand smoke kills 5000 New Zealanders every year".
E-cigarettes are, however, very new in the market so restricting point of sale displays and other forms of promotion greatly advantages traditional cigarettes, which already are a very well-known product, he said.