As countries around the world grapple with how to regulate electronic cigarettes ("e-cigs") as they grow in popularity, Britain has offered an interesting way to handle them: the battery-operated devices will be regulated by the country's Medicines and Health Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as nonprescription medicines beginning in 2016.

Under the new British system, all nicotine-containing products will be regulated as medicines to make them safer and more effective in order to reduce the harms of smoking. Manufacturers will be required to prove the quality of their electronic cigarette products and disclose the exact amount of nicotine in them. However, they will not need to do clinical trials.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine in a vapor to smokers as a safer alternative to cigarettes, which have been proven to contain numerous toxic chemicals. E-cigs often look like normal cigarettes, though some are manufactured to look like pens and USB memory sticks.

"Reducing the harms of smoking to smokers and those around them is a key Government health priority," said Jeremy Mean, the MHRA's Group Manager of Vigilance and Risk Management of Medicines. "Our research has shown that existing electronic cigarettes and other nicotine containing products on the market are not good enough to meet this public health priority."

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been regulating e-cigs since 2011. Currently, the devices are regulated by the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, which also regulates cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. Rather than being regulated as medicines, e-cigs are regulated as tobacco products. They are "drugs" or "drug-delivery devices" for the FDA's purposes. It still seems to be a murky area of regulation in the U.S., however, as the FDA does make a point to say that e-cigs are "marketed for therapeutic purposes."

Recently, some countries decided to do away with e-cigs altogether. Brazil, Norway, and Singapore all recently banned the devices. The long-term health risks from e-cigs, along with their success rates, have yet to be determined. Consequently, many countries are shying away from placing the products on the market in fears that their use could be just as bad or even worse than cigarette smoke.

But the MHRA sees regulation as a better alternative to a full ban. "Smoking is the riskiest thing you can do and we want to enable people to cut down and quit. We don't think a ban is proportionate to the risk, when the alternative is people continuing to smoke," Mean told reporters.

Still, sales of e-cigarettes are through the roof and steadily growing. In Britain alone, research indicates that about 1.3 million people currently use e-cigarettes — a number that is sure to grow with this new announcement.

"The decision announced today provides a framework that will enable good quality products to be widely available," said Mean. "It's not about banning products that some people find useful, it's about making sure that smokers have an effective alternative that they can rely on to meet their needs."