The World Health Organization is calling for the strict regulation of electronic cigarettes, including banning the sales of the devices to minors and prohibiting their use indoors.

The UN health agency called on governments to implement tougher rules around e-cigarettes in a report released Tuesday.

E-cigarettes are often marketed by manufacturers as aids to quit smoking, or as healthier alternatives to tobacco. But the popular nicotine-vapour products have come under fire from governments and health professionals who’ve raised concerns that the growing use of the devices could popularize smoking, especially among young people and non-smokers.

The WHO report raises concerns about the tobacco industry’s control of the $3 billion e-cigarette market and the agency said new laws are needed to prohibit unproven health claims about the devices.

While they are likely to be less toxic than conventional cigarettes, the report cites evidence that shows an e-cigarette aerosol is not simply water vapour, as is often claimed in marketing material. The devices also increase the exposure of non-smokers and bystanders to nicotine and a number of toxins.

"E-cigarettes are a story of both risks and promises. In a sense they are a double-edged sword," Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of WHO's Department for Prevention of Non-communicable Diseases, told reporters on Tuesday. "The tobacco industry is taking greater share -- as public health partners pretending to be part of the solution to the health disaster they have created."

The WHO report calls for the restriction of e-cigarette advertising to ensure it does not target youth and non-smokers. It also calls for prohibiting the use of the devices indoors, in public spaces and at work places until its proven that the exhaled vapour does not harm bystanders.

The report also recommends a ban on fruit and candy-flavoured e-cigarettes so they’re not attractive to children and youth.

The U.S.-based Center for Disease Control said in a report released in June that the number of youth who had never tried a conventional cigarette but who’ve used e-cigarettes tripled between 2011 and 2013 – from 79,000 to 263,000.

The report is to be discussed at a WHO conference on controlling tobacco in October.

Little regulation in Canada

There is little regulation surrounding the use of e-cigarettes in Canada.

Health Canada’s latest guidelines on e-cigarettes were issued in 2009. In a statement Tuesday, the group recommended against using them.

“To date, there is not sufficient evidence that the potential benefits of e-cigarettes in helping Canadians to quit smoking outweigh the potential risks,” spokesperson Gary Holub told CTV News. “Without this scientific evidence, Health Canada continues to advise Canadians, especially youth, against the use of these products.”

Currently, e-cigarettes that contain nicotine, or that claim they can help users quit smoking, are regulated under the federal Food and Drugs Act. Those without nicotine or health-related claims can be imported, advertised and sold across Canada without restrictions.

Monica Sarkar of the Ontario Lung Association said the devices should be regulated. She said the field of research surrounding the devices is still young, but that it seems likely e-cigarettes are far from harmless.

“Preliminary research is saying there is potential harm,” she told CTV News. “Even the nicotine levels in the bloodstream of those who are being exposed to second-hand e-cigarette emissions are actually comparable to those who are being exposed to second-hand smoke.”

The lack of regulation federally and provincially has led to some municipal governments regulating the products.

E-cigarettes were banned in Red Deer, Alta. in June. Toronto’s medical officer of health had recommended a city-wide ban on the products, but council voted on Monday to ban the products from city property.

Can e-cigarettes help smokers quit?

But not everyone sees the cigarette-alternatives as harmful. Jack Weinberg, owner of online vaporizer story Happy Vaper, said within a month of switching to e-cigarettes, the trouble he had breathing disappeared.

He does agree the product isn’t for everyone, though, and said he won’t sell his products to minors or adults who don’t already smoke.

“Our goal is to reduce the harm to people who can’t stop filling their lungs with tobacco,” said Weinberg.

The largest e-cigarette markets are in the U.S., where the devices have been sold since 2007, and in Europe.

Sales of e-cigarettes are banned in 13 of the 59 countries that regulate the devices, the WHO reported. However, most of those 13 countries say they are still available because of illicit trade and Internet sales.

With files from The Associated Press and a report from CTV’s Avis Favaro