Australia could become the first major nation to outlaw smoking, with a federal government-funded trial about to test the viability of electronic cigarettes as a safer, permanent replacement for tobacco.
Medical experts, cancer groups and anti-smoking lobbyists battled for decades to rid cigarettes from public spaces.
''E-cigarettes'' are battery-powered devices that simulate the effects of smoking by heating a nicotine liquid into vapour, which the user then inhales and exhales.
While the gadgets have been hailed as a safer substitute for cigarettes, there is no comprehensive scientific research into the health risks of inhaling vapour.
can reveal that as part of its anti-smoking reform agenda, the previous Labor government committed more than $1 million to a pioneering study that, by 2015, will determine whether or not e-cigarettes could be utilised to phase out traditional cigarettes altogether.
But while Labor took on ''big tobacco'' in the High Court to introduce world-first plain packaging laws and vowed to ban all political donations from tobacco companies, it is uncertain if the Coalition is equally committed.
Coral Gartner, who will shortly lead the trial of 1600 smokers at the University of Queensland's centre for clinical research, said: ''These types of products have the potential to be beneficial to public health if they are used to completely replace the traditional cigarette. It would be a shame not to explore how they could be used to maximise public health while trying to minimise potential unwanted effects such as making smoking appear glamorous.''
Some e-cigarette ''tanks'' resemble actual cigarettes but many are ornate, pipe-like vessels available in numerous shapes and sizes.
The tanks, e-liquids and other accessories can be legally bought in Australia but users are forced to order their nicotine from overseas because it remains classified as a ''dangerous poison'' that can only be sold under licence.
While the conventional smoker's sole accessory is a $2 lighter, the e-cig brigade can spend a fortune assembling the perfect kit. E-liquids aside, there are a range of fancy extras such as e-cigarette desktop holders and luxury ''drip tips'' - the mouthpieces attached to the top of device.
For the real enthusiast, such as Damian Duncan, nothing is more important than the e-cigarette device. He has splashed out on the ''Cadillac'' of tanks - the Wizard Evolved DA20. It was custom-built in Romania and set him back $1000.
''When you consider I was spending almost $300 a week on cigarettes, I view it as a good investment,'' he said.
E-cigarettes have been successfully launched overseas, with celebrities such as Katy Perry and Leonardo DiCaprio pictured puffing away on their own tanks.
With US sales set to exceed $1 billion by the end of the year, cigarette company Philip Morris USA is about to muscle in with its own e-cigarette brand, MarkTen.
As usage increases, health implications remain hazy. In May, the French government triggered outrage among its nation's 1 million e-cigarette users by banning the devices in public spaces.
That ruling appeared justified a fortnight ago when a study claimed to have found previously undetected carcinogenic chemicals in e-cigarette vapours, ''sometimes at levels even higher than in traditional cigarettes''.
In March, a US study of 12 e-cigarette brands found that while certain carcinogens and toxicants were present, levels were between nine and 450 times lower than in cigarette smoke.
Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton said Australia was the global leader in tobacco control and should not let its guard down.
''Plain packaging is having real impact now, as is the pricing strategy. The end for tobacco is coming,'' he said.
While Dr Hambleton described nicotine replacement therapy as a ''positive measure'' in helping people quit, he warned that the unregulated e-cigarette industry was becoming ''a recruiting tool'' for the next generation of smokers.
While e-cigarette manufacturers frequently refer to their products as a quit-smoking aid, many have adopted the same marketing techniques tobacco companies once used to glamorise their brands.
The internet is awash with ''handcrafted'' e-juice liquids for sale, with hundreds of novelty flavours. At least three Australian online suppliers have emerged in the past month. Fantazia states: ''We wanted to find the prettiest, most girly vaping products out there! If it has bling, glitter or pretty colours, if it's glamorous, stylish, cute or cool then we want it for the store and for ourselves, too.''
A NSW Health spokeswoman said it would continue to monitor international evidence ''as it developed''.
Smoke without fire and ire
A nicotine-laced fog pours from Damian Duncan’s mouth as he lounges inside his local pub. At first it appears he’s flouting the law, smoking in a public bar. But these are no ordinary gaspers. ‘‘This is smoke without fire,’’ he says. ‘‘It has saved my life.’’
Electronic cigarettes are a smoke-free substitute for the real thing. They don’t fall under tobacco legislation because they don’t contain any. Some can contain nicotine, some are flavoured. Until lawmakers decide exactly what they are, users can happily puff away in public, despite concerns about long-term use and passive risk.
While not completely odourless, the vapour from an e-cigarette smells nothing like tobacco and disappears within seconds of being exhaled.But is it a genuine saviour for smokers, or an equally addictive lesser of two evils?
Kevin and Jo Husband, from Campbelltown, tried patches, lozenges and even $1000 hypnotherapy without success.
‘‘No doubt about it, this is the miracle cure,’’ Mr Husband said. ‘‘I’ve not had a cigarette since November last year.’’ He added that while detractors would no doubt ‘‘scoff’’ at the fact he was still consuming nicotine, ‘‘at least I’m no longer pumping the other 4000 chemicals and carcigans into my blood stream. I feel great.’’
Another e-cig convert, Andrew Washbourne said he had been a ‘‘40-a-day’’ slave to tobacco since he was 11: ‘‘I would rather go hungry and buy smokes than food.’’ He feels like a new man: ‘‘I can actually walk up the stairs again.’’