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Electronic cigarettes: what can we learn from the UK experience?

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Electronic cigarettes have the potential for substantial improvements in public health

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have polarised the medical and public health communities in Australia and internationally. Some researchers describe them as the greatest opportunity to improve public health this century, with the potential to save millions of lives.1 Other commentators are concerned that they could renormalise smoking by increasing the visibility of a behaviour that resembles smoking, act as a gateway to smoking for young people and deter quitting.2

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat liquid nicotine and other chemicals (e-liquid) into an aerosol for inhalation. E-cigarettes simulate smoking by delivering nicotine as well as addressing the behavioural, sensory and social aspects of the smoking ritual.

As there is no tobacco or combustion, e-cigarettes do not produce the tar or carbon monoxide which are responsible for most of the health effects of smoking. E-cigarettes do contain some toxicants, but at very low levels which are unlikely to pose significant health risks, and they are considered to be much safer than combustible cigarettes.3

Although the sale, possession and use of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes without a permit are illegal in Australia, the devices clearly…