Rules around e-cigarettes should be relaxed to help accelerate already declining smoking rates, MPs have said.
Vaping is less harmful than conventional smoking and the two should not be treated as the same, according to a report by the Science and Technology Committee (STC).
There should be an urgent review to make it easier for e-cigarettes to be made available on prescription, “wider debate” on vaping in public spaces, and greater freedom for the industry to advertise the devices as a less harmful option for smokers, they said.
However the recommendations have been criticised by some public health experts, with one saying the report relies solely on accounts by “e-cig champions”.
The report’s release comes days after scientists warned that the perception that e-cigarettes are safe should be treated with caution.
Research led by the University of Birmingham found the vapourised e-liquid fluid in e-cigarettes has a similar effect on the lungs and body that is seen in regular cigarette smokers and patients with chronic lung disease.
The Government has said it will “carefully consider” the evidence and recommendations made by the STC.
Norman Lamb, the committee’s chairman, said that current policy and regulations do not “sufficiently reflect” the lesser harm posed by e-cigarettes than their conventional alternatives.
“Businesses, transport providers and public places should stop viewing conventional and e-cigarettes as one and the same,” he said.
“There is no public health rationale for doing so.
“Concerns that e-cigarettes could be a gateway to conventional smoking, including for young non-smokers, have not materialised.
“If used correctly, e-cigarettes could be a key weapon in the NHS stop-smoking arsenal.”
Public Health England (PHE) has estimated that e-cigarettes are at least 95% less harmful than smoking.
While “uncertainties” remain about the long-term health impact of the devices, they present “an opportunity to significantly accelerate already declining smoking rates”, the committee of MPs said.
Mr Lamb said: “Medically licensed e-cigarettes would make it easier for doctors to discuss and recommend them as a stop smoking tool to aid those quitting smoking.
“The approval systems for prescribing these products must be urgently reviewed.”
The report also called for limits on refill strengths and tank sizes, which may put off heavy smokers looking for a strong nicotine hit, to be reviewed.
Meanwhile, NHS England’s “default” policy should be that e-cigarettes are permitted on mental health units, to address the “stubbornly high” levels of smoking among people with mental health conditions, the report said.
Around 2.9 million people in the UK are currently using e-cigarettes, with an estimated 470,000 using them as an aid to stop smoking, according to the report.
Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, said: “E-cigarettes are not without harm but are way safer than the harms of tobacco.
“This is about comparing e-cigarettes to normal cigarettes, not fresh air.
“The UK leads the world in harm reduction from tobacco and there is no evidence that they are acting as a gateway into smoking for young people.”
Alison Cook, director of policy at the British Lung Foundation (BLF), said the report “provides clarity on the potential” of the devices.
“The choice to switch to e-cigarettes must be made easier,” she added.
The report comes days after a Professor David Thickett, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, warned the public “must be aware that these devices are not harmless”.
He led a study published in the journal Thorax on Tuesday that e-cigarette vapour boosts the production of inflammatory chemicals and disables key protective cells in the lungs.
He said: “It has been suggested electronic cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes, and this narrative is increasingly supported by tobacco companies that have established research institutes devoted to generating supportive data.”
Reacting to the STC’s report Simon Capewell, Professor in Public Health and Policy from Liverpool University, told the Daily Mail: “The committee has concentrated solely on “experts” who are e-cig champions.
“More balanced reviews of the evidence by the World Health Organisation, (US) Food and Drug Administration have concluded that e-cigs are no better for quitting smoking than things like nicotine gum, patches or tablets.
“E-cigs in teens are a gateway to subsequent smoking lit cigarettes and e-cig vapour contains a large number of toxins which in time will obviously harm users, and bystanders.”
The STC’s report also said an end to the ban on “snus”, an oral tobacco product which is illegal in the UK under EU regulations, should be considered after Brexit.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “The best thing a smoker can do for their health is to quit.
“However, we recognise that the evidence surrounding the use of e-cigarettes is evolving, and there are over three million vapers in the UK already.
“We will carefully consider the evidence and recommendations made in this report and will respond in due course.”