Leaders urge 'restraint' on e-cigarette regulation
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been told to “resist the urge” to control and suppress e-cigarette use.
A letter signed by more than 50 researchers and public health specialists says that the devices could be a “significant health innovation”.
Supporters of e-cigarettes have argued that they are a low-risk substitute for smoking, but fear they could be subjected to reduction targets and advertising bans.
However, critics have argued that not enough is known about the long-term health effects of the nicotine delivery devices.
The letter reads: "These products could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century - perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives.
"If regulators treat low-risk nicotine products as traditional tobacco products... they are improperly defining them as part of the problem.
"Regulators should avoid support for measures that could have the perverse effect of prolonging cigarette consumption.
"We are deeply concerned that the classification of these products as tobacco will do more harm than good.
"The potential for tobacco harm reduction products to reduce the burden of smoking-related disease is very large."
The letter was released ahead of international negotiations on tobacco policy this year. The WHO treaty on tobacco control currently covers 178 countries and 90% of the world's population.
A WHO spokesman told the BBC: "WHO is currently working on recommendations for governments on the regulation and marketing of e-cigarettes and similar devices.
"This is part of a paper that will be submitted to the parties of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control later this year.
"We are also working with national regulatory bodies to look at regulatory options, as well as toxicology experts, to understand more about the possible impact of e-cigarettes and similar devices on health."