OBJECTIVE: To explore among a diverse range of smokers and recent ex-smokers, particularly those from disadvantaged groups, how nicotine-containing products, particularly electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), are understood and experienced. METHODS: Qualitative study of 64 smokers and ex-smokers in Central Scotland. Twelve focus groups and 11 individual interviews were carried out with a range of purposively selected groups. RESULTS: Nicotine replacement therapies and e-cigarettes were regarded as being very different products. Nicotine replacement therapies were viewed as medical products for smokers who want to quit, while e-cigarettes emerged as an ambiguous product whose meanings are still being negotiated. Participants' attitudes and intentions about smoking and quitting were especially important in shaping their understanding of these products. Four main interpretations of e-cigarettes were identified: a more satisfying replacement for smoking, an ambiguous but potentially useful device, a less desirable cigarette and a threat to smoking cessation. The acceptability of continued nicotine addiction and the similarity of e-cigarettes to conventional cigarettes were central themes on which participants held conflicting views. There was considerable uncertainty among participants around the constituents and safety of e-cigarettes. CONCLUSIONS: Different groups of smokers bring diverse expectations, requirements and concerns to their evaluations and therefore to the potential use of nicotine-containing products. The ambiguity around e-cigarettes in public health debates and medical practice is reflected in the positions and concerns of smokers. There is a need for both clear, up-to-date trustworthy information about their benefits and risks, and stronger regulation.
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