British American Tobacco has become the first tobacco company to launch an electronic cigarette in the UK, raising fears that it could eventually boost its profits with public money should the NHS begin prescribing ecigarettes as a smoking-cessation tool.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announced earlier this year that it plans to regulate the products as non-prescription medicines from 2016, at which point they would be considered as a treatment option for the NHS. At present the market is dominated by smaller manufacturers who could struggle to thrive in a heavily regulated marketplace.
BAT confirmed on Monday that the firm’s new ecigarette, known as Vype, will be available to buy online from Tuesday, and will then be brought into shops from September this year.
A spokesman for the company said: “The ecigarette is currently available in a disposable format, with plans to supplement the product range with a rechargeable version.
“The development of inhaled nicotine products, which includes ecigarettes, is a natural extension of British American Tobacco’s approach to tobacco harm reduction which has been evolving over a number of years.”
Electronic cigarettes use an “eliquid” containing pharmaceutical-grade nicotine, giving users their hit of the addictive substance and providing a vapour for the smoking experience. Around 1.3 million Britons now use ecigarettes, up from 700,000 last year. But ecigarettes’ long-term effects are as yet unproven and some doctors argue their popularity could undermine anti-smoking efforts. As the market has grown established tobacco brands have moved in, including BAT, which markets Dunhill, Benson and Hedges and Lucky Strike; Imperial Tobacco, the company behind Gauloises and Davidoff, and Altria (formerly Philip Morris), which makes Marlboro and Chesterfield.
The MHRA said the market needed to be regulated because existing ecigarettes were not good enough, with contaminants found in some products and nicotine levels varying widely. Once ecigarettes are licensed, manufacturers will have to prove the quality of their products and demonstrate that they deliver the correct amount of nicotine, although they will not need to do clinical trials.