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Cigarette Substitute Shrouded in Health Cloud
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Chinese authorities have ordered a probe into a cigarette substitute whose safety has been called into question.

A spokesman for the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration said over the weekend that the main ingredient of the product, Ruyan, is high-purity nicotine extracted from tobacco.

Since nicotine is a dangerous substance, its production and sale should be governed by China's Management Regulations on Dangerous Chemicals, he said.

An official with the Advertising Department of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce said it allowed Ruyan's advertising because it was categorized as neither being tobacco or medicine, which are both regulated.

But after raging media controversy the administration has asked the health, safety, food and drug departments to appraise Ruyan. "If it's proved to be a tobacco product or found to contain dangerous chemicals, we'll ban its advertising," Xinhua quoted the official as saying.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health said on Friday that the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention is testing Ruyan's safety. The results are expected to be known by the end of the month.

At a press conference in May, the Ministry of Health confirmed that Ruyan didn't contain tar. Cigarette tar carries several harmful chemical substances that can lead to cancer.

The Beijing Times reported on November 22 that one inhalation of Ruyan contains 18 mg nicotine compared with about 1.2 mg for a typical cigarette.

But "such a comparison is misleading," said Miao Nan, deputy chief executive of the Beijing SBT Ruyan Corporation, a Hong Kong enterprise selling the product. "The user's guide to our products says clearly that one inhaler of the strongest type of Ruyan is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes (20 cigarettes)."

The company provides inhalers of decreasing nicotine strength, so users can wean themselves off tobacco gradually.

Ruyan, which means "like a cigarette" in Chinese, consists of a stainless steel shell, a lithium ion battery, micro-electronic circuit, an atomizing chamber and indicator light at the head.

When users inhale the nicotine droplet, as they do with a cigarette, the atomization process produces fumes which feels like smoke and the light comes on to mimic a lit cigarette.

At a press conference held by the company last Friday, some experts argued that moderate consumption of nicotine does no harm to health.

The company claimed that the World Health Organization recommends using Ruyan to help quit smoking as part of nicotine replacement therapy, which helps ease withdrawal symptoms by gradually reducing use. 

Sales of Ruyan have exceeded 1 billion yuan (US$127 million) and 200 million yuan (US$25.5 million) worth of contracts had been secured overseas, according to company figures released in October.

The product was given a "National Innovation for Public Good" award last month.

(China Daily December 4, 2006)

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