The European Parliament backed calls for e-cigarettes to be available for sale on the same basis as tobacco, which could put it at loggerheads with the British government.
MEPs rejected plans for them to be treated as medicines, which would have increased their cost and reduced their availability in many countries.
The Liberal Democrats won support for their demand that e-cigs meet product safety standards and for restrictions on their advertising and marketing, but they insisted they had a major role to play in reducing tobacco-related deaths.
South West England and Gibraltar Lib Dem MEP Sir Graham Watson told the Devon Week: “E-cigs can be a game changer in the fight against smoking. Hundreds of former smokers have written to tell me that they have helped them give up cigarettes when nothing else worked.
“They are successful because they are not medicines but products that smokers can use as an alternative to cigarettes.
“Every year 700,000 people in Europe die of smoking-related diseases. We should do nothing that makes e-cigs harder to obtain than tobacco cigarettes.”
The European Parliament decision on e-cigs was opposed by Labour MEPs but supported by Liberal Democrat and Conservative members.
It puts the European Parliament in conflict with government ministers from Britain and a majority of other EU countries. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote to all British MEPs last week urging them to back medicinal regulation for e-cigs.
Attempts must now be made to find a compromise between the European Parliament’s position and that of the national government ministers in the council.
Sir Graham Watson MEP called for ministers to think afresh about their attitude.
“Nobody should encourage people to smoke, and e-cigarettes may yet be found to be harmful in ways we do not know about. But many politicians have still not realised how big a role they play in reducing the use of tobacco and allowing people to quit smoking tobacco.”
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