BEIJING - With its slim white body and glowing amber tip, it can easily pass as a regular cigarette. It even emits what look like curlicues of white smoke.
The Ruyan V8, which produces a nicotine-infused mist absorbed into the lungs, is one of a rapidly growing array of electronic cigarettes attracting attention in China, the U.S. and elsewhere - and the scrutiny of health officials.
Marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking and a potential way to kick the habit, the smokeless smokes have been distributed in swag bags at the British film awards and hawked at an international trade show.
Because no burning is involved, makers say there's no hazardous cocktail of cancer-causing chemicals and gases like those produced by a regular cigarette. There's no secondhand smoke, so they can be used in places where cigarettes are banned, the makers say.
But the World Health Organization says there is no evidence to back up contentions that e-cigarettes are a safe substitute for smoking or a way to help smokers quit.
Hong Kong-based Ruyan - which means "like smoking" - introduced the world's first electronic cigarette in 2004. It has patented its ultrasonic atomizing technology, in which nicotine is dissolved in a cartridge containing propylene glycol, the liquid that is vaporized in smoke machines in nightclubs or theaters and is commonly used as a solvent in food.
Most e-cigarette sales take place over the Internet, where hundreds of retailers tout their products. Their easy availability "has elevated this to a pressing issue given its unknown safety and efficacy," said Timothy O'Leary, a communications officer at the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative in Geneva.
Prices range from about $60 to $240. Kits include battery chargers and cartridges with a range of flavors and nicotine levels.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has "detained and refused" several brands of electronic cigarettes because they were considered unapproved new drugs, said press officer Christopher Kelly.
In Australia, the sale of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine is banned. In Britain, the products appear to be unregulated and are sold in pubs.
Some experts back Ruyan's safety claims.
David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at Ottawa University and former legal counsel of the Non Smokers Rights Association in Canada, said e-cigs could save lives.
With smoking, "it's the delivery system that's killing people," Sweanor said. "Anytime you suck smoke into your lungs, you're going to do yourself a great deal of damage. Nicotine has some slight risks, but they are minor compared to the risk of smoke in cigarettes."
In the U.S, Philip Morris USA and RJ Reynolds have introduced cigarettes that did not burn tobacco, but the technologies were very different from the e-cigarette. Neither has been successful.
The Associated Press