VITALITY Institute head Derek Yach on Tuesday urged doctors to promote electronic (e)-cigarettes to their smoking patients, saying they offered a safer alternative to traditional tobacco products. Tobacco products kill six million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO)

His remarks are not likely to sit well with Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who has previously expressed deep concern over the growing use of e-cigarettes, which are increasingly marketed by tobacco companies. He has also indicated he intends to amend the Tobacco Products Control Act to regulate e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that mimic smoking behaviour without the tobacco. Instead, they deliver a vapour of flavoured nicotine to their users. Manufacturers of e-cigarettes market their potential to help smokers reduce or give up traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes, but their benefits are fiercely contested.

Dr Yach, who previously worked for the WHO and helped develop its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, made the case for e-cigarettes, arguing they separated "clean" nicotine from the harmful tar found in tobacco and therefore offered users a less harmful product.

"I think we are at the stage where we have sufficient evidence to be comfortable that (for) a smoker who wants to quit or reduce their exposure to tobacco products... using an e-cigarette is a good choice," he said at a media lunch sponsored by the Electronic-cigarette Association of SA (EASA).

Public health policy should continue to tighten the control of tobacco products with interventions such as taxes and advertising bans, and at the same time promote the harm reduction potential of e-cigarettes, said Dr Yach. E-cigarettes should also be regulated to ensure consumers had reliable products, he said.

EASA chairman Philip Bartholomew said the local industry supported "appropriate" regulation.

National Council Against Smoking executive director Yussuf Saloojee said e-cigarettes had potential to reduce the harm caused by tobacco products, but not enough was known about their safety.

Dr Salooje said e-cigarettes should strictly speaking be sold only in pharmacies, because they contain nicotine which is a schedule three substance under the Medicines and Related Substances Act. However, this aspect of the law was not being enforced and they were widely available, he said.