USE of electronic cigarettes by smokers in Scotland has increased five-fold in the past four years, research suggests.
A survey by YouGov found that the percentage of adult smokers who said they used e-cigarettes rose from 3 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent this year.
Health charity ASH Scotland, which commissioned the poll, said the findings emphasised the need for a “vigorous public debate” about the advantages and disadvantages of the smoking simulators.
The battery-powered products use a heating element that vaporises a liquid solution, normally containing nicotine, and sometimes flavourings.
Many of the products look like cigarettes because of the vapour that is emitted, leading health campaigners to claim they continue to normalise smoking to children.
Last year UK medical watchdogs said e-cigarettes would be classed as medicines from 2016, meaning they will face stringent checks and controls.
The new YouGov poll revealed that many smokers who were not regular users had tried e-cigarettes.
The number of current smokers in Scotland who said they had tried electronic cigarettes at some point in the past four years increased from 7 per cent in 2010 to 45 per cent this year.
Among ex-smokers questioned this year, 3 per cent said they had used e-cigarettes.
Just under a third (31 per cent) of adults in Scotland who have heard of e-cigarettes believe that they will be good for public health, while around a quarter (23 per cent) disagree. Agreement was even higher among smokers at 55 per cent.
Concerns have been raised that e-cigarettes could encourage those who have never smoked to take up the habit.
But the survey found that current use of e-cigarettes among those who have never smoked was negligible at nearly 0 per cent, while only around 1 per cent of never-smokers reported ever trying e-cigarettes.
Sheila Duffy, chief executive of ASH Scotland, said: “These new figures emphasise the growing popularity of e-cigarettes and we believe there needs to be a vigorous public debate about their use.
“We believe that ‘vaping’ will prove to be less harmful than smoking – but not harmless, as some supporters suggest.
“We are calling for regulation of the market in e-cigarettes – and other new nicotine delivery devices – because nicotine is a highly addictive substance and the companies involved are under strong commercial pressure to recruit young people into using it.”
Ms Duffy said the charity wanted an under-18 age restriction on the sale of e-cigarettes in Scotland, as was already being planned for England and Wales
She said there also needed to be curbs on how these products are promoted. But the charity stopped short of calls by other organisations for their use to be banned in enclosed public places alongside normal cigarettes.
Companies including Scot-Rail, Starbucks and Wetherspoon pubs have already banned customers using e-cigarettes, and their use has been prohibited in and around Commonwealth Games venues in Glasgow.
Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ group Forest, said: “Campaigners have to wean themselves off the idea that nicotine is bad. It can be addictive but it’s no more harmful than caffeine. Government must resist the temptation to over-regulate e-cigarettes.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We strongly believe that electronic cigarettes need appropriate regulation and should never be promoted to young people.”