Policy will drive users back to smoking tobacco, health campaigner warns.

Ordering nicotine-based e-cigarette products off the shelves is "ridiculous", says a health official and respected anti-smoking campaigner.

Despite being illegal according to the Ministry of Health's rules, e-cigarettes containing nicotine have been widely available over the counter in Auckland.

But in the past few weeks, the ministry has dispatched smoke-free enforcement officers to inform retailers such sales are prohibited.

The devices, which contain flavoured "e-liquid" with or without nicotine, emit a smoke-like vapour.

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One of the major e-cigarette retailers, Shosha, said on Thursday it would get rid of its stock either this week or next week.

Public health specialist Dr Murray Laugesen, who has been researching e-cigarettes since 2007, labelled the ministry's decision "ridiculous" and said it would drive people back to smoking tobacco. He said e-cigarettes were less harmful than traditional cigarettes, a view shared by the World Health Organisation.

"The ministry itself says half of combustible cigarette smokers will die from smoking so what is being set up is a ridiculous policy which enables people to keep on smoking something which is going to kill them. It's a crazy policy."

In the UK, 2.1 million smokers were using e-cigarettes and in the United States, more than $2billion was being spent on them each year.

Latest Ministry of Health data estimated there were 626,000 traditional cigarette smokers in the country. "Something is very wrong with the New Zealand policy, especially considering there's at least 8000 places in the country where you can buy combustible cigarettes."

Laugesen was surprised the matter had not become an election issue.

The ministry said there was not enough evidence to recommend e-cigarettes as an aid to quitting smoking. It would, however, be "assessing new evidence as it arises, but in the meantime smokers should continue to use approved smoking cessation aids, such as patches, lozenges, and gum".

That position was supported by a recent WHO report that stated that while they were likely to be less toxic than conventional cigarettes, e-cigarette use posed threats to adolescents and foetuses of pregnant mothers using the devices. E-cigarettes also increased the exposure of non-smokers and bystanders to nicotine and several toxicants.

The ministry said nicotine e-cigarette products could still be legally bought from overseas via the internet for personal use.

"They cannot be sold, or resold, in New Zealand because they are unapproved medicines."