E-cigarettes could be made available through the NHS after the medicines regulator updated guidelines for people who want to quit smoking.
The Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said that manufacturers of electronic cigarettes can now submit products to go through the same regulatory approval process as other drugs.
This could mean that England would become the first country in the world to prescribe e-cigarettes as a medical product, but it requires approval from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice).
If the products receive approval, then it will be up to physicians to decide whether it would be appropriate to prescribe an e-cigarette to a patient seeking to quit smoking.
Currently, alternatives to cigarettes are regulated as consumer products.
The updated guidelines come after consultation with the E-Cigarette Expert Working Group, a group of UK experts who have provided independent monitoring and advice to the MHRA.
Non-smokers and children continue to be strongly advised against the use of electronic cigarettes.
E-cigarettes contain nicotine and are not without risk, but experts from the UK and US have said that regulated e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Opening the door to an NHS-prescribed licensed e-cigarette has the potential to tackle the sharp disparities in smoking rates across the country, helping people to quit smoking wherever they live and regardless of their origin. “
Nearly 64,000 people died from smoking in England in 2019 while there are still around 6.1 million smokers in the country, according to figures given by the Department of Health.
Deborah Arnott, executive director of the health charity ASH, said smokers careful with e-cigarettes may be more likely to try vaping if they are reassured by a drug license.
“The MHRA guidelines open the door to a day when smokers can be prescribed electronic cigarettes to improve their chances of successfully quitting,” she said.
Professor Nick Hopkinson, Consultant Physician at Royal Brompton and Medical Director of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “There is already good evidence that commercially available e-cigarettes allow people to switch from smoking to a much safer alternative.
“However, the development of medically licensed electronic cigarettes would be a really important step forward, offering patients and healthcare professionals an additional tool to break tobacco addiction, backed by the assurance that comes from a process of smoking. ‘strict authorization. “
Currently, doctors can prescribe varenicline and bupropion, which are tablets, to help people quit smoking, while the NHS also recommends patches, gum and vapes which can be purchased without a prescription.
In 2019, Professor Thomas Munzel of the University Medical Center in Mainz, Germany, said electronic cigarettes are so dangerous that addicting countries should consider banning them.
Prof Munzel and colleagues said there was “little evidence” to support claims that e-cigarettes are a “healthy” alternative to smoking or that they help people quit smoking.
And earlier this year, the World Health Organization recommended that governments take action to prevent non-smokers from using vapers, demand better regulation.
While e-cigarettes are legal in the UK for anyone over the legal smoking age, in several countries around the world it is illegal to sell vapers, including Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Japan and in India.
In Qatar, North Korea and Singapore, their use and sale are illegal.