THE WORLD is on the brink of a technological revolution which aims to eradicate dangerous cigarette smoking.
Companies, including some of the biggest names in tobacco, are poised to launch a new generation of devices that mimic the experience of smoking without the lethal effects.
One design has attracted the attention of British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the world's largest tobacco companies, which has bought the rights to market it.
An estimated 10 million 'e-cigarettes', which are shaped to look like the real thing and simulate smoking by heating nicotine to produce an inhaled mist, have been sold worldwide. Other devices, similar to asthma inhalers, deliver the nicotine as a vapour or powder drawn directly into the mouth or lungs.
UK regulators are considering ways to bring the new devices within their law but campaigners are insisting on 'light touch' controls which could make it legal to market them in newsagents and supermarkets alongside cigarettes.
Pure nicotine, though highly addictive, has few side effects and a low risk of overdose -- it is the tobacco that is lethal.
But the idea has caused alarm among some experts, who say it is wrong to promote nicotine dependency.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which licenses medicines, has begun a programme of research following a consultation exercise on the risks to consumers from the products and the impact of regulation.
It is due to make a final decision on how to regulate them by spring 2013.
Britain's Royal College of Physicians has called for the devices to be made more widely available. In a 2007 report, the college argued for a "harm reduction" approach which aimed to move smokers on to safer substitutes, to supplement the existing therapeutic approach using nicotine patches and gum to help smokers to give up.
A report by the British Cabinet Office's behavioural insight team has backed the new technology. In its report in September, the unit said: "If alternative and safe nicotine products can be developed which are attractive enough to substitute people away from traditional cigarettes, they could have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives a year."
John Britton, professor of epidemiology and director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies at the University of Nottingham, said: "We have a government that is considering changes to the way nicotine is sold and marketed which has the potential to save thousands of lives in this country and millions worldwide. No other country is doing this -- but a lot are watching."
Responses to the MHRA consultation mostly supported a form of 'light touch' regulation which would ensure the devices were safe but would not deter companies by requiring them to conduct expensive trials as for medicines.
Most e-cigarettes are made in China. A survey for Ash, the anti-smoking charity, found one smoker in 10 had tried them and 3pc had continued to use them. A spokesman for Ash said: "We think light touch regulation is a sensible way forward."