LONDON - Electronic cigarettes, the popular smokeless devices used by millions of people to quit smoking, will be classed as medicines in Britain under new proposals announced on Wednesday.
The MHRA health products watchdog said it wanted to reassure customers about the quality of e-cigarettes, which are currently used by about 1.3 million people in Britain.
The government is backing plans for a European Union-wide law, which could come into effect by 2016 and would require e-cigarettes to have a medical licence, officials said.
Until then, the MHRA is encouraging manufacturers to apply voluntarily for a licence, demonstrating that their products are safe and effective in the amount of nicotine they dispense.
Any e-cigarette containing more than two milligrammes of nicotine will be classed as a medicine under the British regulations -- one tenth of the amount required in France.
"Smokers are harmed by the deadly tar and toxins in tobacco smoke, not the nicotine," said Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England and Wales.
"While it's best to quit completely, I realise that not every smoker can and it is much better to get nicotine from safer sources such as nicotine replacement therapy.
"More and more people are using e-cigarettes, so it's only right these products are properly regulated to be safe and work effectively."
Jeremy Mean, group manager of risk management of medicines at the MHRA, said the government was seeking to license all nicotine-replacement products, including gums, patches and mouth sprays.
"It's not about banning products that some people find useful, it's about making sure that smokers have an effective alternative that they can rely on to meet their needs," he said.
E-cigarettes contain a liquid, usually made up of propylene glycol, nicotine and flavourings, which is heated up and delivered as a gas to the lungs with each draw.
The user exhales vapour, but not smoke, a practice called "vaping."
The products provide a nicotine hit and the sensation of smoking without the tar, ash and toxins found in conventional cigarettes.
But the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) has said their safety "has not been scientifically demonstrated... (and) the potential risks they pose for the health of users remains undetermined."
Last month, France announced restrictions on the sale, use and advertising of e-cigarettes that put them in the same bracket as tobacco.