Why anyone would want to bring anything but fresh air into their lungs now that tobacco's damage has been well documented, is a mystery. Why anyone would let children inhale flavoured nicotine from "e-cigarettes" is equally inexplicable. Yet as we report today, that is happening.

E-cigarettes deliver nicotine, the addictive drug in tobacco, without the tar and other carcinogens of burned leaf. The electronic version is a tube with a battery that heats a wire, vapourising a drop of liquid that contains nicotine, propylene glycol - and a flavouring. It might be strawberry, chocolate or bubblegum.

These things may not be harmful in themselves, as manufacturers point out, though they are not particularly healthy, either. Propylene glycol is a chemical used in anti-freeze as well as many pharmaceuticals. The real concern is the behaviour they encourage.

Smoking was always more than the pleasure of the drug. It was a satisfying social prop, a stylish occupation of the hands, an instrument of calm, contemplative breathing that looked confident and cool. Young people took up the practice only for that reason. The narcotic appeal came later, once they had stopped coughing.

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E-cigarettes provide the social and neurological pleasures without the carcinogens. Could not that be a good thing? Some doctors argue so, including one of New Zealand's leading anti-smoking campaigners, Dr Murray Laugeson. He believes them to be a valuable substitute to tobacco for smokers addicted to nicotine.

"The fact is 12 people a day are dying of smoking [and] there is a product available that assists a large proportion to quit," he says, accusing the Ministry of Health of standing in their way by its lack of guidance.

E-cigarettes containing nicotine are illegal in New Zealand though, as we report, they can be obtained in Auckland. Shops selling e-cigarettes get around the ban by selling nicotine cartridges separately. Strangely, it is illegal for the products to carry a claim that they can help tobacco smokers to quit.

The law could surely allow them to be sold for that therapeutic purpose, perhaps only with a doctor's permit, and forbid their sale to young people with or without nicotine. There is no sense in allowing children or teenagers to become attracted to the act of smoking even if it is merely "vaping".

It is all too likely that if an e-fag is not to hand, or its battery is flat, they will resort to tobacco to occupy their hands. Research has found that those who had used an e-cigarette at least once were six times more likely to try tobacco.

Flavoured vapour is especially troubling since it is likely to attract the very young. Their lungs are not an organ for ingesting anything except oxygen or respiratory aids. There is no need for imitation cigarettes to be on general sale, for the same reason the confectionary version is no longer available.

Ash calls e-cigarettes the "alcopops" of the smoking culture. They form the same function. The sweetened tubes have no purpose except to be insidious enticements to a deadly habit.