ASH CASSON talks about the rising popularity and controversy surrounding e-cigs.

You'll have spotted them at some point. You'll have seen someone "smoking" but then have noticed the end of their "cigarette" glowing an odd blue, green or red rather than the traditional fiery embers. They are the electronic cigarette (e-cig), a product that's grown sensationally in popularity over the past few years, much to the dismay and frustration, I imagine, of the tobacco industry.

Users of e-cigs - the so-called "vaping community" - use these devices, ranging from traditional cigarette lookalikes to some rather more outlandish designs, to inhale vapourised nicotine, water and flavouring in order to closely simulate the sensation of smoking. But why go to all that effort rather than just smoking a normal cigarette?

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Well, users will give you a few reasons; they're a less-risky, healthier and cleaner way of smoking; they produce no offensive tobacco odours and they're a heck of a lot cheaper. The latter is unquestionably true - generally about a quarter of the price.

But are they really less harmful than smoking a traditional tobacco cigarette?

The short answer is: we don't yet know.

The manufacturers will tell you the lack of tobacco, tar, carbon monoxide and other chemicals is a health-plus in comparison to cigarettes, but health bodies including the British Medical Association will also point out the various concerns, including a lack of long-term medical research, a lack of regulatory oversight into the manufacturing process and quality control, and the purity of ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration in America also found some e-cigs to contain 'Tobacco-Specific Nitrosamines' (cancer-causing agents), though at no higher levels than those found in Nicotine-Replacement Therapies such as nicotine gum, patches and inhalers.

You can pick up an e-cig at almost any newsagent, pound store or supermarket. UK production and sales are almost entirely unregulated meaning anyone can make and sell them, and anyone can buy them, giving reasonable cause for concern.

Of course, legality varies from country to country. Most western countries do not currently regulate the sale and use, whereas in other areas of the world, it's a different case altogether: simply possessing one in Hong Kong could land you in prison for up to two years.

Despite the concerns though, popularity continues to rise faster than ever. In the US, sales rose from 50,000 to 3.5 million in 2012 alone, while a 2013 UK study of 12,000 adult smokers found that 11% identified themselves as users of electronic cigarettes.

From a technology aspect, the device is, particularly for something so small, very impressive, usually constructed of two pieces; the battery and the 'cartomizer' (the filter section containing the liquid nicotine solution and flavouring - be it tobacco, cherry, coffee, Red Bull or any one of a multitude of other flavours out there - along with a powerful heating element).

The power and air pass through the battery and into the cartomizer, instantly vapourising the solution into a thick cloud which is then inhaled by the user, giving both the nicotine and the 'hit' (physical smoking sensation).

I use e-cigs and I can honestly say that, once the initial curiosity has worn-off, I'm still left with the same tuts I would receive if I were puffing away at a Marlboro Light.

And while I'm far from saying they're a "healthy alternative", I fail to see how they could be any worse for my health than smoking a traditional cigarette, and as the rest of the vaping community would agree; they're a lot cheaper.

Personally, I'll continue using them over tobacco until the day I quit altogether.