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Should doctors prescribe e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes could be prescribed as part of the U.K.'s National Health Service as they are around 95 percent less harmful than smoking and could help 8 million Brits kick their tobacco addiction, a report by U.K. health officials says.

Following an independent review into e-cigarettes, government health body, Public Health England (PHE), found that e-cigarettes could be "a game changer in public health" especially when reducing health problems caused by smoking.

With smoking killing around 80,000 people every year in the U.K., the body wants to make sure smokers know all the facts.

Tobacco cigarette versus e-cigarette.
Martina Paraninfi | Flickr | Getty Images
Tobacco cigarette versus e-cigarette.

"E-cigarettes are not completely risk-free but when compared to smoking, evidence shows they carry just a fraction of the harm. The problem is people increasingly think they are at least as harmful, (which could) be keeping millions of smokers from quitting," Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at PHE said in a statement.

Consequently, PHE want to see health and social care professionals provide accurate advice on smoking and e-cigarettes, by discussing what the best routes of referral are and offer "a range of evidence-based, effective" options, including e-cigarettes - if smokers want to follow this route.


While the PHE say that 'free stop smoking services' are the most effective for quitting, the vaping device does have "potential benefits" with moving people away from tobacco.

A spokesperson at PHE, told CNBC that there are currently no licensed e-cigarettes in the U.K. market, so the National Health Service (NHS) cannot prescribe smokers with this alternative.

"We want to see a choice of safe and effective e-cigarette products that smokers want to use on the market and look forward to the arrival of licensed products that could be prescribed as medicines."

E-cigs: The smoking hot debate

The discussion on whether e-cigarettes are healthy is still a matter for great debate. In March, Mintel published a report revealing 82 percent of e-cigarette users surveyed use the device to kill their smoking addiction; while non-smokers weren't attracted to the mechanism.

However, a survey conducted by Liverpool John Moores University on 16,193 adolescents found that one in five U.K. adolescents had tried e-cigarettes, of which 16 percent of this group hadn't even tried a cigarette before, suggesting it might be a gateway drug.

How the public view e-cigarettes can be skewed the PHE spokesperson told CNBC: "We all have a responsibility to report the evidence accurately. We are concerned that some studies on e-cigarettes have been misreported by organizations and the media."

"The visual and behavioural similarities with tobacco cigarettes may also impact people's perceptions of e-cigarettes. It's critical to provide a distinction between the two."

NHS: To advise or not to advise

So should the NHS and GPs adopt a strategy which advises smokers to adopt e-cigarettes as a way of killing their tobacco addiction?

"The idea of e-cigarettes being available on the NHS is not a 'bad thing' as long as it is just one of a number of different means of access to the products," Shane MacGuill, senior tobacco analyst at Euromonitor International, told CNBC.

"E-cigarette advocates would argue that the products work best when they are removed from a medical or 'treatment' setting and are delivered as a desirable, consumer good so that a very controlled distribution system, centred around medicalization would be a counterproductive and indeed, inefficient use of public resources," MacGuill concluded.

To read the report's findings, click here

—By CNBC's Alexandra Gibbs, follow her on Twitter @AlexGibbsy.