Ministers will seek to ban the sale of e cigarettes to children under 18 this week and make it illegal for adults to buy e cigarettes for children.

They are acting in response to concerns that the battery powered devices, which simulate smoking by vaporising a liquid solution that is usually infused with some nicotine, encourage the uptake of smoking.

There are also worries, voiced by the British Medical Association and England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, at a lack of rigorous, peer reviewed studies to back the claim of manufacturers that the product is safe.

E cigarettes give the smoker a hit of nicotine a highly addictive drug. An estimated 1.3 million of the current 10 million smokers across Britain have now switched to e cigarettes.

Tobacco companies, including Altria Group, owner of the Philip Morris company, invested in e cigarettes in the face of pressure over the dangers of their products, which include , countries across the world, including ones as varied as , Colombia, Panama and Uruguay, have already banned their sale to children.

Davies said it was important for the British government to protect children given the potential risks. She said “We do not yet know the harm that e cigarettes can cause to adults let alone to children, but we do know they are not risk free. E cigarettes can produce toxic chemicals and the amount of nicotine and other chemical constituents and contaminants, including vaporised flavourings, varies between products meaning they could be extremely damaging to young people’s health.”

There is no legal restriction on under 18s buying products containing nicotine, which represents a legal loophole at a time when e cigarettes are becoming popular with under 18s. In an attempt to further restrict children’s access to cigarettes, a new offence will be created which will mean any adult who buys cigarettes or other tobacco products for someone who is under 18 could be given a 50 fixed penalty notice or fined up to 2,500.

Two in five children (41%) of 15 year olds who currently smoke say they usually buy their cigarettes from other people rather than buying them from a shop.

Nearly all (95%) of 11 to 15 year olds who smoke have managed to get someone else to buy cigarettes for them in a shop at least once in the past year.

E-cigarette poisoning figures soar as vaping habit spreads across uk

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The number of people including very young children poisoned by swallowing e cigarette liquids containing nicotine rose sharply in the UK last year.

There were 139 calls by health professionals seeking expert advice on how to treat members of the public as the vaping habit rapidly spread.

The figures obtained by the Guardian from the National Poisons Information Service(NPIS) show that there were 29 such cases in 2012 and 36 over the five years before that.

The NPIS’s research indicated that over a third (36.5%) of calls involved very young children, 56% over 18s and the rest children of five and over and teenagers.

Most poisoning cases were accidental and symptoms, including vomiting, nausea, dizziness and abdominal pain, were usually short lived, according to the service’s director John Thompson.

“While any cases of poisoning are of concern, our previous research showed that fortunately fewer than one in ten of patients developed symptoms of toxicity which lasted more than four hours and only two patients had long lasting symptoms.

“However, just over a third of the telephone enquiries concerned children aged four and younger and of these, 10% developed symptoms which needed hospital care,” said Thompson.

“E cigarette usage has increased significantly in recent years. The liquid found in e cigarettes can be very harmful and I would urge anyone who uses e cigarettes to make sure that the liquids are stored safely, and in particular away from children.”

The figures obtained by the Guardian come after health warnings from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which has seen big increases in calls to poison centres involving e cigarettes from one a month in September 2010 to 215 in February this year. Unlike the British figures, these included calls from the public as well as health professionals, and also covered cases of inhalation and absorption through the skin and eyes.

Sweden too has reported increases in e cigarette poisoning.

The NPIS figures come as EU countries prepare to tighten controls over e cigarettes and some companies opt to seek costly licensing as medicines, which they would need to back up any claim they help tobacco smokers to quit.

The Welsh government is considering whether e cigarettes should be banned from public places, and a new law banning sales to under 18s in England and Wales is expected to be implemented soon.

The first e cigarettes in the UK went on sale in 2005 and now are used by at least 2m people, according to Katherine Devlin, of the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association(Ecita), a UK body with 26 companies in membership.

She said the existing EU regulations covering the safety of products and chemicals should reassure the public. Manufacturers were already meant to warn e cigarette users that liquids in e cigarette cartridges could be toxic if swallowed or in contact with the skin and urge them to keep them locked up and out of reach of children.

But trading standards officers were not always enforcing the rules, leaving room for “cowboys” to exploit consumers, Devlin said. Manufacturers and retailers operating illegally and not providing appropriate childproof packaging and labelling should be pursued by authorities although she recognised council trading standards officers had suffered public spending cuts.

“We need access to these products but they need to be safe, properly tested and properly sold,” said Devlin.

Ecita says the new rules will mean many e cigarettes currently on the market will be banned and make new types less attractive and harder to use. They are expected to be detailed in a directive next month and will be phased in from 2016.

These will require more information on nicotine content, including its toxicity and addictiveness, new controls over liquid refills, powers for member states and Brussels to act where there are “justified safety concerns”, and better monitoring of growing e cigarette market.

The Department of Health said “We recently passed legislation to ban the sale of e cigarettes to under 18s. Like any nicotine product, we want to keep e cigarettes out of the hands of young children and are now working to put measures into place to ensure that new European tobacco regulations are implemented properly.”