SALES of electronic cigarettes have trebled this year – but smokers are still uncertain about the benefits or risks of using them and the authorities remain unclear about who is responsible for regulating them.
Electronic cigarettes deliver a nicotine kick without the cancer-causing effects of burning tobacco and tar, but their relative novelty means doctors remain uncertain about the health effects.
The health authorities have still to decide whether they are of benefit to users by getting them off conventional cigarettes or a threat because they deliver addictive nicotine. The Department of Health said that they were not regulated as medicines because they were marketed as smoking alternatives rather than aids to quit. And they don't fall under tobacco legislation because they don't contain any tobacco.
It said they were by default covered by general product safety regulations enforced by the National Consumer Agency (NCA).
However, the NCA said electronic cigarettes containing nicotine were the responsibility of the Department of Health and/or the Irish Medicines Board.
The Irish Medicines Board said it considered them nicotine-delivery systems, which would make them medicinal products that could only be sold in pharmacies. But the lack of regulation has led the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland to instruct its members not to sell them in pharmacies. They are now on sale in many convenience stores and supermarkets around the country, including major retailers such as Supervalu.
Alex Pescar, who sells the Ovale and Ecirette brands in his Dublin store said sales had trebled in the past year.
"The key reason people start using them is that they want to quit, as we see a surge of new faces in January," he said. "The other big reason is the cost of smoking cigarettes is so high that people are turning to these as a cheaper alternative."
Dubliner Alec MacNeil said he had noticed a huge improvement in his energy levels and general health since switching to electronic cigarettes six months ago.
The impact has also been felt in his wallet, as he is spending €6 a week on them compared to €60 a week for his former 20-a-day habit.
"I was cautious about using them initially because of the absence of regulation but I had tried everything else to quit, and now I wish these had been out years ago," he said.