E-cigarettes may be able to be prescribed on the NHS to help slash high smoking rates across the UK.

As part of the historic move, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) published new guidance today (29 October) which paves the way for medicinally licensed e-cigarette products to be prescribed on the NHS to patients who wish to quit smoking and start vaping instead.

The MHRA has invited e-cigarette manufacturers to submit their products for regulatory approval.

This means England could become the first country in the world to allow the prescription of e-cigarettes as a medicinally license product.

If a product was to receive MHRA approval, prescribers could then decide on a case-by-case basis whether to prescribe an e-cigarette to a patient.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), however, has consistently taken a strong stance against the use of e-cigarettes for medical use.

Claire Anderson, RPS president, said today (29 October) that the body was ‘interested’ in the Government's new plans.

She said the organisation wanted to ‘see this development around smoking cessation and whether manufacturers will approach the MHRA.’

She added: ‘Smoking remains one of the biggest killers and we should therefore continue to explore all ways in which we can reduce the harm caused.

‘Ensuring medicinally licensed e-cigarettes are safe and effective and that they do no harm to people is vital.

‘As our e-cigarettes policy states, we advocate the precautionary principle approach to minimise exposure to e-cigarette vapour until more safety data becomes available. Non-smokers should not start using e-cigarettes.’

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said: ‘Opening the door to a licensed e-cigarette prescribed on the NHS has the potential to tackle the stark disparities in smoking rates across the country, helping people stop smoking wherever they live and whatever their background.’

In June, NICE published draft recommendations, written jointly with Public Health England (PHE), recommending that people who are trying to give up smoking should be able to use e-cigarettes.

Healthcare staff should give people ‘clear and up-to-date information’ on the product, it said.

A PHE report, published in February, said that cumulative evidence suggested that as the use of vaping products in quit attempts has increased, the number of successful quits in England has also increased.

However, the authors of the guidance did note that the long-term side effects of e-cigarettes on health are still ‘uncertain’.

Data published last July suggested that over one million people have given up smoking since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

The survey, carried out on behalf of the charity Action on Smoking Health (ASH), also found that 440,000 smokers have tried to kick the habit during this period.

Pharmacists reported an influx of patients coming into the pharmacy looking to use smoking cessation services during the lockdown after evidence emerged that suggested that smokers who have Covid-19 are at a higher risk than non-smokers of severe illness and death.

Smoking remains the leading preventable cause of premature death in the UK, with around 64,000 dying from smoking each year.

According to the most recent ONS statistics, there are still around 6.9m smokers in England.

There has been much debate among medical groups, healthcare professionals and Government bodies about whether e-cigarettes should be used for medical purposes.