E-CIGARETTES have been banned from taxis across St Helens after the council’s licensing committee ruled the products should fall under its no smoking policy.

Councillors took action because they believe it is too difficult for cab drivers to tell whether passengers are smoking tobacco or e-cigs.

For the first time it has also signalled concern about “vaping”, remarking that e-cigs are “completely unregulated and the long term effects are unknown”.

The battery-powered products look like real cigarettes but users inhale a mist of nicotine instead of smoke.

The ban is expected to provoke a storm among sellers of e-cigs, who argue they are a legitimate way of weaning people off tobacco.

Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), a public health charity that works to eliminate harm caused by tobacco, suggested the decision to bracket e-cigs with tobacco was “regrettable and short-sighted”.

But the council is standing firm, and its next step could see the products being banned from council workplaces and guidelines issued to businesses.

A St Helens Council spokesman told the Star: “The council’s licensing committee has approved a clear and easy-to-understand policy for taxis that makes it easier to enforce the general ‘no smoking’ rule in cabs.

“It prevents the smoking of both tobacco and e-cigarettes by either passengers or taxi drivers.

“E-cigarettes are obviously designed to look exactly like tobacco cigarettes and it would be unfair to expect drivers to start checking exactly what their passengers were smoking if there was a dispute.”

E-cigs are not covered by the smoking ban, and, unless a business or public body introduces their own policy, can be used in pubs, bars, stadiums and other public buildings.

The use of them, known as ‘vaping’, is said to be increasing rapidly. However, because they are, as it stands, still unregulated, it is accompanied by a significant health debate.

Some medical experts suggest they could have potentially huge health benefits by drawing smokers away from cigarettes.

But others raise concerns about their safety, with the British Medical Association stating it will take time and careful studies to fully assess the effects.

In June the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency announced e-cigs will be classed as “medicines” under new proposals to tighten up the regulation of nicotine-containing products.

A St Helens Council spokesman added: “We believe this is a responsible attitude to take, bearing in mind that e-cigarettes are completely unregulated and the long-term effects are unknown.

“Accordingly we will soon be launching a new policy, covering our own staff, which brackets e-cigarettes with tobacco products.

“We are also producing similar guidelines for local businesses and employers to consider as part of their smoking policies.”

Amanda Sandford, from Ash, said: “E-cigs are not tobacco products – they have far more in common with stop smoking products such as nicotine gum and patches.

“They are to help smokers overcome their addictions. It could also discourage ex-smokers using e-cigs to help them give up and drive them back to tobacco. Overall, we would not support a total ban.”