The Government has been urged to consider restricting sales of nicotine electronic cigarettes to pharmacies, in a blog to be published today by public health experts.

But an opponent of medical-style controls says doing that would impede access to a device that has huge potential to reduce smoking harm.

Battery-powered e-cigarettes produce a vapour containing nicotine, the chemical craved by smokers. Nicotine inhalation carries some health risks, but these are far less than from inhaling the many harmful components of tobacco smoke.

Their use has surged internationally. Some use so-called "vaping" to quit tobacco, others to help them smoke less. Comprehensive usage data is not collected in New Zealand but a survey by the Health Promotion Agency found the proportion of adolescents who had used an e-cigarette had nearly tripled in two years, to 20 per cent last year.

Advertisement

This has reinforced concerns that e-cigarettes may be a gateway for youth to nicotine addiction and smoking.

E-cigarette users can legally import nicotine for personal use. It is illegal to sell nicotine e-cigarettes although some New Zealand retailers flout the ban.

Nine researchers from Otago University and Auckland University writing in the Public Health Expert blog today suggest a range of possible rules to control potential harms of e-cigarettes, while making them legally available.

Their "least restrictive" option is to sell them only in pharmacies, possibly also requiring a doctor's prescription. Another proposal is to ban vaping anywhere smoking is banned, such as indoors at most workplaces.

At the more-restrictive end are making state medicines buyer Pharmac the sole supplier of e-cigarettes and other "alternative nicotine delivery systems", and enforcing the ministry's current ban.

But Christchurch smoking policy researcher Dr Murray Laugesen wants rules to prevent children from accessing the nicotine fluid and for the ministry not to prosecute e-cigarette retailers as long as they do not sell to those aged under 18.

E-cigarette law

• Health Ministry says it is illegal to sell electronic cigarettes containing nicotine.

• E-cigarettes can also be used without nicotine. It is legal to sell these - except to people under 18 if the device looks like a cigarette or other tobacco product.

• It is illegal to sell an e-cigarette with or without nicotine that is claimed to help smokers quit

• Use of e-cigarettes is not covered by smokefree law, so "vaping" in bars and other workplaces is not illegal but some businesses, including some airlines, ban the practice