The Royal College of Physicians has been accused of sending out mixed messages on smoking in its report Harm reduction in Nicotine Addiction: Helping people who can't quit.

The report called for a new approach, it said smokers who can't quit should be given nicotine products that will satisfy their addiction without killing them.

Professor John Britton, chair of the RCP Tobacco Advisory Group, said while most efforts on smoking are aimed at preventing people from starting and helping smokers to quit 'there are millions of smokers who can't quit and they need nicotine products that can satisfy their addiction without killing them'.

However Dr Bobbie Jacobson director of the London Public Health Observatory lamented the mixed message this would send.

She said: 'Quitting all tobacco use is still the best solution for smokers. Whilst there may be a "hard core" of smokers who can't quit, it is probably very small- all the evidence shows that smoking prevalence continues to fall. The mixed messages of a harm reduction policy cannot be justified when what we need is a properly resourced stop smoking strategy.'

The RCP says providing a nicotine hit in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute could save millions of lives by encouraging smokers to switch to lower risk nicotine products.

The regulatory systems which govern nicotine products in most countries, including the UK, actively discourage the development, marketing and promotion of significantly safer nicotine products to smokers.

The RCP wants to see the entire nicotine market reformed by a new regulatory framework that favours harm reduction, which would include providing smokers with safer sources of nicotine that are acceptable and effective cigarette substitutes.

President of the faculty of public health Alan Maryon-Davis backed the RCP report.

He said: 'There is a real need to reduce the harm caused to people who can't give up smoking - mostly the more deprived members of society who can least afford cigarettes.

'I think the idea of a regulatory authority for all nicotine products is a sound one and that this should be able to ameliorate the potential problem of smokers switching to other forms of nicotine intake which might also have health consequences.'