The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) issued the statement in response to the rising prevalence of e-cigarette use in Australia.
Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid to produce a vapour that users inhale.
Selling, using or importing electronic cigarettes containing nicotine is illegal in Australia, but non-nicotine electronic cigarettes are available legally.
The manufacturers of electronic cigarettes argue they have the potential to reduce smoking-related disease and death by helping smokers to quit or providing a safer alternative to tobacco cigarettes because they expose users to fewer toxic chemicals.
While there was “some preliminary evidence” of this, there is “currently insufficient evidence to support these claims,” NHMRC said.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration has not approved electronic cigarettes for smoking cessation. However, it has approved a range of nicotine replacement therapies and prescription medications for this purpose.
Several health groups, including the Cancer Council and the Heart Foundation, say the short and long-term health effects of using electronic cigarettes is unknown. The agencies worry that widespread electronic cigarette use could undo decades of progress in reducing the appeal of cigarette use in children, and provide a “gateway” into nicotine addiction and tobacco cigarette smoking.
NHMRC said further research is needed to enable the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes to be assessed, and unless more evidence becomes available, health authorities should “act to minimize harm” from electronic cigarettes.
The NHMRC currently supports over $1 million of research in this area and said it welcomes further applications by Australia’s research community through its grant schemes.
Jill Hennessy, spokeswoman for Victorian Health Minister, said she was “consulting with experts about the issue of e-cigarettes”.
“Smoking kills around 4000 Victorians every year, and so anything that makes smoking more accessible or more ‘acceptable’ needs to be seriously reviewed,” the spokeswoman said.