Edwin Poots plans to ban teens from buying e-cigarettes
Electronic cigarettes could be banned from sale to young people in Northern Ireland, according to the health minister.
Edwin Poots said the popularity of e-cigarettes had grown rapidly in recent years, although they are completely unregulated.
A public consultation has been launched by the minister, which aims to restrict the sale of nicotine-containing products to adults.
Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for stronger regulation on electronic cigarettes, recommending that they be banned indoors and not be sold to minors.
And yesterday researchers said e-cigarettes designed to help people quit smoking may act as a "gateway" to harmful illicit drugs.
Scientists pointed out that while eliminating many of the toxic compounds found in tobacco, e-cigarettes delivered highly addictive "pure nicotine".
"E-cigarettes have the same physiological effects on the brain and may pose the same risk of addiction to other drugs as regular cigarettes, especially in adolescence during a critical period of brain development.
"We don't yet know whether e-cigarettes will prove to be a gateway to the use of conventional cigarettes and illicit drugs, but that's certainly a possibility," said US neuroscientist Professor Eric Kandel, who conducted the research. "Nicotine clearly acts as a gateway drug on the brain, and this effect is likely to occur whether the exposure comes from smoking cigarettes, passive tobacco smoke or e-cigarettes."
The WHO has suggested a range of regulatory options including banning vending machines from public places, stopping the sale of sweet, fruit and alcohol-flavoured products, and banning manufacturers from touting the devices' health benefits until there is "convincing supporting scientific evidence".
Since the introduction of smoke-free legislation in the UK, the popularity of electronic cigarettes has increased significantly, with recent reports indicating that there are around two million users of e-cigarettes in the UK.
Mr Poots added: "While it appears that the use of e-cigarettes by never-smokers is very low, there are concerns that these products could act as a gateway into smoking by young people.
"I want to ensure that our children and young people are protected from potential nicotine addiction and from subsequently taking up tobacco smoking.
"I believe that prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to under-18s will help to achieve this."