CANBERRANS keen to try smokeless ''e-cigarettes'' are running a legal tightrope, with the product banned across Australia despite its increasing availability online.
Health authorities and law enforcement agencies are concerned e-cigarettes are arriving from overseas and are available online from a growing number of websites - including some based in Australia where possession or use of nicotine for recreational purposes is illegal.
Nicotine is banned because it is a scheduled poison and nicotine-replacement products must be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to be exempt.
The Federal Government banned e-cigarettes, often marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking, earlier this year at the same time a 25per cent tax hike on tobacco products took effect.
Australia's largest supplier of e-cigarettes, New Zealand business Elusion, reported that sales increased 200per cent when the price hike took effect but the federal ban appeared to have no impact on sales to its 10,000 Australian customers.
The Australian Medical Association said there was no evidence ''e-cigarettes'' helped people quit, and Victorian AMA president Harry Hemley warned the products posed a serious health risk.
''I'm concerned they are being marketed online as a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes when there is no evidence to support this claim,'' he said.
''There are no warning labels to alert consumers to the risks of use.''
A TGA spokeswoman said e-cigarettes were not a safe alternative to cigarettes.
''Nicotine is a schedule seven poison because it is harmful to human health,'' she said.
''It is very important that consumers understand that when buying unregistered products over the internet that they have no guarantee about the quality or the actual ingredients of the product they are going to inhale or ingest, and that there is no guarantee that these products are safe or effective.''
ACT Health said e-cigarettes also encouraged people to continue smoking behaviour.
''Because e-cigarettes mimics smoking in both design and use, the ACT Health Directorate does not support [their use],'' a spokeswoman said. ''The Health Directorate strongly advocates the de-normalisation of smoking and e-cigarettes are counterproductive to this goal.''
Elusion chief executive Paul Medarov said authorities missed the point and most people reduced their nicotine intake, while many gave up smoking completely.
''Essentially, the idea behind e-cigarettes is that by using them, it will mimic and therefore entirely replace the need for real cigarettes,'' he said.