UNTIL recently, walking past groups of folk puffing away outside big office blocks and shopping centres invariably meant being engulfed by a thoroughly unpleasant fug of cigarette smoke.

These days it’s just as likely to be the scent of peach melba cheesecake, toasted caramel, mango tango or some other overly-sweet scent you can’t quite put your finger on that immerses you for a brief second then instantly disappears into the ether.

Many of these modern puffers will be vaping rather than smoking, of course, having made the positive decision to give up the fags, thus massively reducing their chances of getting cancer, saving themselves a small fortune and not polluting the atmosphere of those around them.

And yet still they will be treated as social outcasts, tutted at in the street and railed against on social media. All for making a healthier choice.

I’ve long wondered why we continue to treat e-cigarettes in the same way as their killer counterparts when the only thing they have in common is that both are nicotine delivery systems involving inhalation. But that’s where the similarity ends.

The evidence on safety has been clear for some time. Although not completely harmless for those who partake (what is these days?), research has unequivocally found that vaping is at least 95 per cent less harmful than smoking. And, according to NHS England there is no credible evidence that vaping is a gateway to smoking for young people.

With this in mind I was delighted to read that MPs on Westminster’s science and technology committee have called for the rules on e-cigarettes to be relaxed so they can be more widely used and accepted within society.

Their report made a number of key recommendations to Government, including prescribing e-cigarettes on the NHS, giving greater freedom to manufacturers to advertise them and, most controversially, the possibility that vaping should be allowed on public transport, in workplaces and other public spaces.

The committee should be congratulated for its pragmatic thinking; after all, letting people vape more freely will benefit us all.

It is estimated that around three million people in the UK are already using e-cigarettes, the vast majority of them smokers looking to give up completely or at least cut back. Granted, many don’t beat the nicotine urge completely and find themselves addicted to vaping rather than smoking, often indefinitely.

But it is surely incomparably better to be addicted to something that may or may not have a slightly negative effect on the lung’s immune system than something proven to cause at least 15 cancers, as well as a range of horrid respiratory diseases, and still kills 10,000 people a year in Scotland.

The NHS can ill afford to go on treating these terrible smoking-related diseases, which still overwhelmingly afflict people in deprived communities who have not been giving up cigarettes in the numbers of more affluent areas; helping people to move onto e-cigarettes, state subsidising their use, even over the long-term, would be money well spent.

Indeed, I’d like to see specialist nurses handing out e-cigarettes in hospitals, pinpointing smokers in most need – pregnant women, people with chest, heart and lung problems, the obese - perhaps even letting patients use them in designated vaping rooms. We should be encouraging people to vape rather than smoke whenever we can. At the same time, overplaying the minimal effects of vaping will only put smokers off making the move.

Like the cross-party MPs who wrote this report, society needs to be more tolerant and pragmatic in its approach to the issue. But that’s where the problem lies, especially since hell hath no fury like a former smoker. I’m one of those myself, who after a couple of unsuccessful tries finally packed in the fags (hopefully for good) four years ago using patches. I’ve never tried an e-cigarette and have no wish to.

Unlike many others who have given up, however, I certainly don’t feel the need to zealously push my own success with patches/nicotine gum/abstinence/Allen Carr/hypnotism/counselling down the throat of others as the only way to give up. All ex-smokers surely remember not only how hard it is to stop, but also the need to find your own way through it. Just because you gave up a certain way doesn’t mean it will work for others. And it doesn’t make you a smoking cessation expert.

Predictably, it is often former smokers who have taken against vaping most vocally and vehemently. It is they you will see furiously overdoing the hand fanning and tutting, banging on about the e-cigarette “smoke” in their faces. It’s not smoke, it’s water vapour - the clue is in the name. If only people felt the same fervour about the diesel engines estimated to contribute to 12,000 deaths a year in the UK.

It’s time we gave vapers a break and showed a bit more support for their positive decision to give up cigarettes. Turning them into pariahs is silly, and it risks costing society more in the long run.