They look like cigarettes and are smoked like cigarettes, but makers of herbal tobacco-free cigarettes tout their products as aids for smokers seeking to kick the habit.
Anti-smoking advocates and doctors, on the other hand, have condemned them, but public officials say there is no legal basis for pulling them from the shelves.
Herbal cigarettes are considered neither a food nor a drug and so are not directly under the control of the Department of Health (DOH), said Yu Po-tswen (游伯村), an official at the Bureau of Health Promotion.
"There's no evidence that herbal cigarettes work [to help people give up smoking] and they might in fact cause harm," Yu said. "But there's not much we can do beyond fining companies NT$100,000 for unsubstantiated advertising."
Fines have not deterred one company, Ever Bright Hitech Corp, Yu said. At NT$2000 per carton, the fine amounts to only 50 cartons of product, he said.
"From this we can see that they must be making massive profits," he said.
The company Web site claims smokers can gradually replace cigarettes with their product until they are no longer addicted to nicotine.
The site claims that the product is "100 percent herbal" but does not detail the composition.
Ever Bright Hitech refused to answer questions from the Taipei Times. However, their Web site shows documents from the DOH stating that that the product is neither a drug or a food.
"We have received many calls to our hotline from people trying to quit smoking, complaining that they have spent their money on herbal cigarettes and that they don't work," said Lin Ching-lee (林清麗), director of the tobacco control division at the John Tung Foundation, a health promotion organization.
"Although they don't contain tobacco, nobody really knows what these herbal cigarettes are made of," Lin said. "Smoking herbal cigarettes might still put harmful substances into your body."
"More importantly, they don't work. This saps both the consumer's wallet and their will to quit," she said.
Lin recommends tobacco replacement products containing nicotine delivered through patches or gum for those who want to quit smoking.
Lin said herbal cigarette-replacement products are usually imported from China.
"The government needs to figure out how this product entered Taiwan. Is it a medicine? Is it a food? We cannot let it go unregulated," she said.
Yang Chen-chang (楊振昌), a toxicologist at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, said that he could not comment specifically on the product without knowing more about its composition, but pointed out that being tobacco-free does not mean that herbal cigarettes are safe.
"It's very possible that the herbal cigarettes will still produce tar and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons," Yang said. "And any smoke inhaled into the lungs will almost certainly contain harmful fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide."