Electronic cigarettes, which many people use to kick their smoking habit, are growing in popularity in New Brunswick and there's some debate on whether or not they're safe.

Electronic — or e-cigarettes — produces a vapour that is scent-free and tobacco-free. Some are even nicotine-free.

Health Canada told stores to pull the ones with nicotine off their shelves in 2009, and still hasn't given approval for anyone to sell them.

But consumers are buying them online.

The vapour-only cigarettes, ones without nicotine, can be purchased at local convenience stores.

The New Brunswick Lung Association's Barbara Walls said she's just started getting calls about them.

"Recently, I've had a call from a physician and a nurse practitioner whose clients are using what's called vapour e-cigarettes," she said.

Walls said the callers want to know if the fake cigarettes are a safe way for people to quit smoking.

One of the ingredients for one vapour-only cigarette is propylene glycol — found in toothpaste, deodorant and anti-freeze. It's a skin irritant, said Walls, that may cause liver and kidney problems.

Too much unknown

She said too much is unknown about e-cigarettes.

"I have heard stories, and I've read some things where because it's unregulated, people who are heavy smokers and have to have the fix, can actually poison themselves through nicotine toxicity by using the cigarettes with nicotine too frequently," Walls told CBC News.

She suggests talking to a physician about safe, authorized nicotine replacement therapies. She also said there's counselling and support offered at provincial lung associations.

"So if you're trying to get rid of an unhealthy, dangerous, habit, why would you inhale something, that you really don't know for sure, that it is safe?"

Alternative to smoking

But anti-smoking advocate David Sweanor believes tobacco-free e-cigarettes should be encouraged as an alternative to cigarettes.

Sweanor was a long-time legal counsel for the Non-Smoker Rights Association, has worked with the National Cancer Institute, and is a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient from the Pan-American Health Organization.

He said he hates cigarettes, but nicotine is just what hooks smokers in. It's the other 4,000 chemicals that are released as tobacco burns that cause many of the diseases associated with smoking, he said.

"Using electronic cigarettes, using smokeless tobacco, anything that you can get away from the smoke, is going to greatly reduce your risk of death," Sweanor said. "Cigarettes are an incredibly deadly delivery system."

"On one hand, you have the absolute certainty that if you smoke cigarettes, you've just massively increased your likelihood of an early death," he said. "On the other hand, we know we've got something that has eliminated virtually all of those chemicals, all of the smoke, it won't be poisoning the people around you.

"Yeah there's some potential that there could be some harm, and Health Canada could eliminate that by some form of regulation," he added.

Calls for testing, regulation

Where both Walls and Sweanor agree is in a call for Health Canada to test and regulate e-cigarettes.

"So that Canadian consumers then can be making an informed choice. Right now, I believe, they're making an uninformed, unhealthy decision. They're taking a risk, that's what I'm saying," said Walls.

"Health Canada should be helping find ways to put alternative products on the market, rather than erecting barriers to prevent them from getting on the market," Sweanor said. 

Health Canada wouldn't agree to an interview with CBC News. In an email, a spokesperson re-iterated what the department has been saying since 2009 — that Canadians shouldn't purchase or use electronic smoking products because they haven't been tested.