The merits of e-cigarettes were thrashed out at a one-day gathering of some 250 scientists, policymakers, industry figures and enthusiasts at the Royal Society in London.
The use of electronic cigarettes — battery-powered devices that simulate smoking by heating and vaporising a liquid solution containing nicotine — has grown rapidly, with tobacco manufacturers jumping on the trend.
Sales have doubled annually for the last four years and there are an estimated 7m users across Europe, organisers said.
The European Parliament last month threw out a bid to curb sales of e-cigarettes by classifying them as medicinal products.
Delegates in London debated how the market had moved faster than science or the law.
Many delegates merrily “vaped” away throughout the indoor conference sessions, including one man puffing on a sizeable e-pipe and another inhaling an e-cigar that lit up blue.
“Cigarettes are killing 5.4m people per year in the world,” said Robert West, a health psychology professor and the director of tobacco studies at Cancer Research UK.
He told delegates switching to e-cigarettes could save millions of lives, but the debate was about “whether that goal can be realised and how best to do it”.
He said almost one third of attempts to quit smoking involved e-cigarettes.
Though they are estimated to be between 95% and 99% safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes, some countries have banned them and attendees debated the thorny issue of whether regulation — possibly under medicinal rules — should be brought in.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the Action on Smoking and Heath (ASH) group, said not enough was known about their effects, and pointed out that the tobacco companies are snapping up manufacturers.
“ASH thinks that e-cigarettes have significant potential. They are a lot less harmful than smoking,” she said, adding that “there’s a real concern that their safety and effectiveness is not guaranteed without regulation”.
“The tobacco companies are moving in. For them it’s potentially a ‘Kodak moment’ because if everyone moved to e-cigarettes, they’d lose their market so they’ve got to be in there. A lot of the bigger e-cigarette companies have already been bought up.”
She warned: “If there are carcinogens in there, you won’t see an immediate effect but 10, 15, 20 years down the line, people will be dying from that.
“The development of e-cigarettes is definitely running ahead of the science.”
Jacques Le Houezec, a consultant in public health and tobacco dependence from France, said while e-cigarettes contained some harmful substances, the levels of toxicants were nine to 450 times lower than in cigarette smoke.