While some smokers have embraced the use of electronic cigarettes to kick the habit, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Thursday warned against the production, import and sale of the electronic substitutes.
Nevertheless, there are no rules in place to punish individuals who own or use e-cigarettes, the agency said.
It is importers, producers and sellers of the electronic devices who are liable to fines.
FDA Deputy Director-General Chiang Yu-mei (姜郁美) said that smoking the battery-powered devices in public places is not regulated under the Tobacco Hazards Prevention Act (菸害防制法) because they are neither cigarettes nor illegal drugs, so law enforcement personnel would take no action.
Although e-cigarette smokers are not in violation of the law, members of the public can still report them via the 1999 hotline to assist the government in tracking down the sources of the devices, she said.
While the devices are regulated as conventional cigarettes in the US and France, they are considered an unregistered prohibited drug in Taiwan, FDA inspection chief Chen Hui-fang (陳惠芳) said.
In 2009, the then-Department of Health categorized e-cigarettes containing nicotine as a regulated drug as defined by the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act (藥事法).
However, manufacturers or importers of nicotine-based e-cigarettes can be fined a maximum of NT$10 million (US$330,000) and sentenced up to 10 years in prison, while vendors can be fined NT$5 million and up to seven years in prison for providing drugs that are not registered and have not obtained regulatory approval.
While some e-cigarettes do not contain nicotine, 31 out of 36 samples obtained online, from night market vendors or by customs officials last year were found to contain the drug, Chen said.
However, those who deal with nicotine-free e-cigarettes are liable for penalties under the Tobacco Hazards Prevention Act, which stipulates that manufacturers, importers and vendors of any “candies, snacks, toys or any other object shaped like cigarettes” can face fines of between NT$10,000 and NT$50,000.
While the devices have proven popular with smokers trying to quit, Chiang said that vendors advertising e-cigarettes as a way to cure a smoking habit are liable for additional fines.
Vendors claiming that e-cigarettes can help with addiction need to provide evidence from clinical trials or face fines of between NT$600,000 and NT$25 million.
The FDA said it would collaborate with the Health Promotion Administration to decide whether owning or using e-cigarettes should be a punishable offense and whether the devices create secondhand smoke or cause serious health issues for non-smokers.