The UAE could be set to lift its ban on e-cigarettes and other similar products, it has been revealed.
Authorities have begun a preliminary project to assess whether electronic nicotine devices should be allowed to be used legally in the country.
Currently, e-cigarettes are banned in the Emirates due to concerns over their impact on user health.
But that stance could be softening, with the Government consumer watchdog – the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (Esma) – now reviewing data on alternative tobacco products as part of a plan to establish if the ban should be lifted.
"We believe that Esma is seriously considering how to best regulate all novel tobacco products to ensure product safety and the highest quality," said Lana Gamal El Din, director of corporate affairs for US tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris International.
“At PMI we support all forms of transparent collaboration with authorities, Esma included, and we abide by national requirements in any given country.
“The UAE is an important market for us, and we hope to provide the product here under the adequate regulatory framework.”
Leading tobacco companies are at the heart of continuing developments in the field of alternative tobacco products.
Manufacturers have long recognised that new, high-tech substitutes to conventional cigarettes can ensure they retain the business of long-term smokers while also reducing the harm tobacco can cause.
To date, the most popular adaptation of the traditional cigarette has been the e-cigarette.
Vaping, as it is known, works by heating a liquid usually containing nicotine and other flavourings to boiling point, with the resulting vapour then inhaled into the user’s lungs.
Despite the huge success of the product – variations are now sold worldwide – its long-term health implications are still unclear.
But according to Philip Morris, technological advances incorporated into their latest product – the Iqos – have reduced smokers’ potential exposure to harmful chemicals even further.
The new system works by heating tobacco – known as heatsticks – rather than burning it, meaning no combustion, ash or smoke.
And because the tobacco is heated to a much lower temperature than it would be in a cigarette, far fewer harmful chemicals are released.
The Iqos, which is battery charged and roughly the size of an iPhone, is now sold in more than 40 countries.
“Ultimately, our ambition is that Iqos and other smoke-free products we are developing are available in all countries,” said Ms Gamal El Din.
“Sharing our research with the scientific community and regulators is essential to constantly gather feedback, address regulatory requirements and provide transparency into our science and results.”
Smoke-free tobacco products remain banned in a number of countries around the world, including the UAE, Singapore and Brazil. But despite the ban, e-cigarettes are widely used throughout the Emirates, with products either purchased overseas or from black market dealers.
Officials from PMI said it had published key findings from its own research into its products in more than 200 peer-reviewed publications since 2008.
The company has also said it plans to make raw data from its studies publicly available to further improve transparency.
“Gathering feedback from a wide range of external experts is central to our assessment programme,” said Ms Gamal El Din.
“That means an ongoing dialogue with regulators and experts in the scientific and public health communities – that also applies in the UAE.
“Our ambition is clear. We are working to replace cigarettes with smoke-free products in all countries, including the whole of the GCC.”
Public Health England, established in 2013 to improve the UK's national health, has backed the use of e-cigarettes in helping smokers kick the habit, licensing the devices as medicines.
A report by the body in 2014 said “electronic cigarettes, and other nicotine devices, offer vast potential health benefits" compared with smoking but that “appropriate regulation…monitoring, and risk management” was still required.
Meanwhile, the UK Government’s Science and Technology Committee has also urged authorities to consider relaxing advertising regulations and taxes for e-cigarettes to improve public health by encouraging smokers to switch to smoke-free alternatives. Almost three million people use e-cigarettes in the UK.
In America, however, government bodies have been more reluctant to embrace the technology, with officials from the Food and Drug Administration warning the devices could become a gateway to conventional smoking for young people.
But despite this, a growing number of public health authorities believe giving smokers access to less-harmful alternatives can be a major benefit to public health, even if quitting tobacco altogether remains the best option.
Dr Moon Ok-ryun, a leading Korean professor of public health from Seoul National University, said: “We should adopt the harm reduction approach and actively prepare to research and regulate less-harmful tobacco products that can reduce the harm due to smoking.”