What a drag as pub goers switch to electronic ciggies

Electronic cigarettes taking hold in smoke-free Britain.

This winter, nicotine addicts in the UK are finding a way around the country's strict smoking ban by dragging on electronic cigarettes. Users describe the devices, known as e-cigarettes as very close to the real thing.

British pub owner Janet Partt, a recent convert. (CBC)

"Really, it was to get round the issue of standing outside and feeling ostracized, which is why we sell the cigarettes, to get the smokers back in," says Trevor Partt, publican at the Rivermill Tavern in St. Neots, Cambridgeshire, puffing on his e-cigarette and exhaling a tobacco-free cloud of vapour.

"We are trying to bring the heart back into pubs."

Standing nearby, I thought I detected the faintest hint of chocolate in the air but arguably there is no scent.

"Very, very close to a cigarette, very close," Partt says, "and if it is harmless, which we're hoping that it is, it's got to be a brilliant invention."

Is this healthy?

The e-cigarette looks like a sleek pencil and is longer than the usual cigarette. When a smoker sucks the tube, which contains nicotine cartridges, it delivers a hit of nicotine vapour to the lungs, created by the propylene glycol in the tube (like the substance used to produce fog on stage).

To complete the effect, the end lights up; it's powered by a rechargeable battery.

Ingesting vaporized nicotine from an electronic gadget seems like an odd thing to do in a social setting. But it is the absence of tobacco smoke that makes it an attractive alternative for Dr. Carl Phillips, an associate professor of public health sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

University of Alberta research team testing different electronic smoking devices at a local pub. (CBC)

A non-smoker, Phillips believes attempts to help smokers quit the habit have failed by focusing on devices that do not satisfy a smoker's craving for nicotine, a substance he considers to be on a par with caffeine in terms of risk.

So he and his research team at the university's tobacco harm reduction unit are excited about e-cigarettes because they believe the device offers satisfaction to the nicotine addict while cleverly imitating real cigarettes.

"Most people think of public health as being about the nanny state, about telling people 'No you can't do that,'" Phillips says.

"But when you have to tell people to quit doing their favourite thing in the world, that's really a failure."

Electronic cigarettes, on the other hand, represent "a great triumph of public health," in his view. "This lets people keep doing something that's very important to them with almost completely eliminating the health effects and that's what real public health is about."

Not about quitting

However, there is a hitch. Developed in China about five years ago, e-cigarettes have not undergone rigorous clinical trials in any country, although some distributors have done their own testing.

Some manufacturers have implied that the World Health Organization considers electronic cigarettes to be a legitimate form of nicotine replacement therapy, like nicotine gum, patches and lozenges.

But the WHO has complained to the manufacturers, saying the organisation is concerned about the increased use of a device with an unknown safety profile and potentially serious public health consequences.

"The World Health Organization knows of absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that would confirm that the electronic cigarette is a safe and effective smoking cessation device," Douglas Bettcher, acting director of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, told reporters back in the fall.

Electronic smoking devices at the University of Alberta test lab. (CBC) (CBC)

In fact, he went on, "there are a number of chemical additives in the product which could be very toxic."

For his part, Phillips agrees there needs to be more thorough research, but he's still encouraging use of the device. "It's always possible that there's something about these things that's very unhealthy but we don't have any reason to believe that there is."

Smoking bans

At this point, there is also much discussion about whether e-cigarettes comply with widespread public smoking bans.

Health Canada is still reviewing the matter. Britain's Department of Health considers e-cigarettes to be "borderline products," adding "no such products have been approved for sale in the UK."

Furthermore, the British government says it would be wrong to assume that using them in pubs complies with the UK's strict public smoking ban.

Publicans Trevor and Janet Partt do not worry about the authorities. Over the past few weeks, Partt says he's sold nearly 200 e-cigarette kits. They retail here for almost 40 pounds, which is roughly $70.

Kits include a battery, charger, atomiser and five nicotine capsules. A pack of five replacement capsules costs about $4. Depending on how heavily someone drags on the tube, one capsule provides the equivalent of 10 to 15 cigarettes.

As for the Partts, they have no plans to quit tobacco although they've both discovered they're smoking fewer real cigarettes since taking up the electronic variety.