Professor Amanda Amos, of Edinburgh University, said many of the adverts showed
attractive people using the products and risked a return to the days when promotion of tobacco was common.
The researcher, who has been given a World Health Organisation (WHO) award for her work in tobacco control, also called for plain packaging to be introduced for tobacco products.
Electronic cigarettes – also known as e-cigarettes – have grown in popularity as many smokers have come to see them as a safer way of getting a nicotine “hit” without the dangers linked to cigarette smoke.
The battery-operated products often resemble normal cigarettes, including a glowing tip and steam to mimic smoke.
But as they have grown in popularity concerns have been raised about the quality and safety of the products, leading the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to investigate whether they should be regulated. A decision is expected shortly.
Prof Amos, professor of health promotion at Edinburgh University, said a generation of young people growing up in Scotland had not been exposed to tobacco advertising, as the phased ban began over a decade ago.
But she said as the UK awaited advice on e-cigarettes, they remained a “big unknown” and there were concerns.
“Firstly, there is no age limit on their sale. It is almost changing every week in terms of where we are seeing them sold. So they are becoming more common,” Prof Amos told The Scotsman. “But secondly, there are no specific controls on
advertising for e-cigarettes.
“There is one TV ad where you don’t see any smoking. But in some of the other ads – there was one in the St James Centre [in Edinburgh] a few weeks ago – there is a guy holding an e-cigarette with apparently smoke coming out of it.
“I was completely taken aback, because that, to me, is like going back ten years or more, to when we had cigarette ads, because it looks so like a cigarette ad.
“I think one has to raise the concern about how advertising for e-cigarettes is going to be regulated, so that it doesn’t create a positive image of smoking – even though it’s not a cigarette that is being smoked.”
The ASA said different rules applied to print and TV adverts. It said broadcasting codes did not prohibit adverts from depicting cigarettes, but did prohibit tobacco products from being promoted.
The ASA said: “There are discussions on-going in government about whether e-cigarettes that contain nicotine should be licensed as smoking cessation therapies. We are waiting for the MHRA to come to a conclusion.”
On the issue of packaging, Prof Amos said tobacco companies were still able to promote their products by using novelties such as slim, colourful boxes to appeal to younger smokers, meaning a move to plain packets was the next logical step.
The Scottish Government has backed a move to introduce plain packaging and is awaiting a decision by the UK government before deciding the best way forward.
But a spokesman for the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association said: “There is no credible evidence that demonstrates tobacco in plain packaging will lead to a reduction in youth smoking.”