New research shows that smokers who are trying to quit are 60% more likely to succeed if they switch to e-cigarettes compared to those who use willpower alone or try nicotine replacement therapies, such as patches or gum.
The results, which are set to appear in the science journal Addiction, were based on a survey of almost 6,000 smokers over a five year period. Funded by the charity Cancer UK, the study suggests that e-cigarettes could play an important role in reducing smoking rates and, by consequence, tobacco-related illnesses and deaths.
The results were adjusted to account for a wide range of factors that might influence success, including age, nicotine dependence, previous quit attempts, and whether quitting was gradual or abrupt.
The survey found that 20% of people trying to quit with the aid of e-cigarettes stopped smoking conventional cigarettes. This compares with just 10% of those using over-the-counter aids and 15.4% who used willpower alone.
Electronic cigarettes are essentially a nicotine delivery mechanism that contains no tobacco. The jury's still out on the longterm health impacts of e-cigarettes, but preliminary results have shown that the nicotine-laced vapor generated by an electronic cigarette promotes the development of cancer in certain types of human cells much in the same way that tobacco smoke does. But how this compares to the tobacco in conventional cigarettes (or other carcinogens in our environment, like the charred crust of a grilled steak), is still not known.
"E-cigarettes could substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking," noted senior author Robert West of UCL's Department of Epidemiology & Public Health in a statement. "However, we should also recognise that the strongest evidence remains for use of the NHS stop-smoking services. These almost triple a smoker's odds of successfully quitting compared with going it alone or relying on over-the-counter products."
Some health experts worry that widespread use of e-cigarettes could "re-normalize" smoking.
"[We] are tracking this very closely and see no evidence of it," says West. "Smoking rates in England are declining, quitting rates are increasing and regular e-cigarette use among never smokers is negligible."
The study is set to appear in an upcoming edition of Addiction: Brown J, Beard E, Kotz D, Michie S, and West R (2014) Real-world effectiveness of e-cigarettes when used to aid smoking cessation: A cross-sectional population study. Addiction 109: doi: 10.1111/add.12623.