They look and taste like the real thing without the harmful chemicals, but battery-powered cigarettes are sparking health and safety queries in the UAE. Marketed as a "cleaner" alternative to smoking tobacco, the rechargeable electric devices disguised as regular cigarettes can be purchased here but have not been approved by the Ministry of Health.
Several models of the "e-cigarettes" - each of which contains a small battery, a heating element and a cartridge of liquid nicotine - are being imported by companies in Dubai. Brands such as the Super Smoker and the E-Health Cigarette can also be found on souq.com for as much as Dh450 (US$123). Sharad Bachani, the product developer for Merlin Digital in Dubai, said the company imported and resold the ElectroN brand to other countries in the region. He said the US Food and Drug Administration was still performing trials on e-cigarettes, but that he believed they were "a cleaner way of smoking".
"You take a puff, and what you exhale is just water vapour with a little bit of propylene glycol," he said, adding that the same chemicals were used in fog machines. "A regular cigarette has a lot of chemicals," Mr Bachani said. "When you burn the paper, that's about 500 or 600 chemicals in the paper alone. Then you have the carbon, the tar, the tobacco - all these things that are bad to take into your lungs."
When the user draws on an e-cigarette, a light that simulates glowing tobacco embers activates in the cylinder. The heat vaporises a flavoured solution that can deliver a hit of nicotine, depending on the user's preference. "You really get the sensation of smoking, but the water vapour has no smell and won't harm the people around you," Mr Bachani said. Sellers of e-cigarettes say the devices also can help people quit smoking, as the cartridges can be changed to decrease nicotine content.
But Dr Mahmoud Marashi, who works at the Rashid Hospital Dubai, was not so certain. The World Health Organisation (WHO) last month issued a statement saying, "WHO does not support the use of this product as a legitimate cessation aid." Dr Marashi agreed more research was needed. "I can't pass judgment because I've only heard of this, but I'm not sure it's really effective," he said. "There are so many claims without any proof, so we must study it and prove that it can help."
Mohammed al Abed, the project manager for Arabian Gulf TSS, said his company imported e-cigarettes from China and sold some last year in the capital. He is out of stock. "I want clear reports from the WHO so I can sell it; I don't want people to get hurt by me, even though I think it's good," he said. "The Ministry of Health has not approved it, but it's been around for years in China and you can buy it in the US, Canada, Hong Kong and Britain."
A Dubai physician, who did not want his name used, said he succeeded in quitting Marlboro Lights after six months of puffing on an e-cigarette. After four months, he switched to a nicotine-free cartridge. "I tried the gum and the nicotine patch, but it's important psychologically for a smoker to have the feeling of holding a cigarette and taking a deep breath and blowing," he said. "I think it's a practical way to quit."
The Sudanese doctor, who is 35, said he is no longer addicted to nicotine, but stressed that he would not recommend e-cigarettes to his patients unless more research confirmed there were no health risks. firstname.lastname@example.org