Although the sample size was relatively small, a study published online on September 7, 2013 in the British medical journal The Lancet found that e-cigarettes were just as effective in helping people stop smoking as nicotine patches – and they might be just a bit better.
E-cigarettes are mechanical devices, usually shaped similar to regular cigarettes, which contain a battery-operated heating element that heats a nicotine-containing mixture, turning it into a vapor which can be inhaled by the user. They have become quite popular in recent years among smokers looking for a safer, more socially acceptable way of obtaining their nicotine fix. Many are also using them in their efforts to stop smoking.
Nicotine patches are adhesive patches impregnated with nicotine which are applied directly to the skin, allowing nicotine to gradually be absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. They come in varying doses, allowing the user to gradually step down how much nicotine they are using until they can completely quit. Unlike e-cigarettes, they are FDA-approved for smoking cessation.
For the study, the researchers recruited 657 adult smokers in New Zealand who had expressed a desire to quit smoking. From one week before their scheduled quit date until 12 weeks later, each participant was supplied with either e-cigarettes, nicotine patches or placebo e-cigarettes which did not contain any nicotine.
Six months later when the researchers followed up with the participants, 7.3% of the 289 people in e-cigarette group had been able to continue avoiding tobacco products. Of those using patches, 5.8% had continued to abstain. And, among those using the placebo e-cigarettes, only 4.1% had successfully refrained from tobacco use.
While it appears that e-cigarettes are indeed effective in helping people to stop smoking, it remains unclear whether they are safe in the long-term. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found traces of cancer-causing substances, such as tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) and diethylene glycol, in e-cigarettes. However, a 2011 paper in the Journal of Public Health Policy, which reviewed the available data, found that the amount of TSNAs in e-cigarettes was significantly smaller than that found in traditional cigarettes. Also, although the FDA study did find diethylene glycol, 15 other studies did not.
Concerns about potential contamination aside, e-cigarettes are probably still safer than traditional cigarettes, say scientists such as Igor Burstyn, who published a 2013 technical report about the matter. Although nicotine is highly addictive, it is the chemicals produced by the burning of the tobacco and filler products that creates the health risks of smoking, such as lung cancer.
Still, the lead author of the study, Chris Bullen, urges caution. In a press release, Bullen said: “But there is still so much that is unknown about the effectiveness and long-term effects of e-cigarettes. Given the increasing popularity of these devices in many countries, and the accompanying regulatory uncertainty and inconsistency, larger, longer-term trials are urgently needed to establish whether these devices might be able to fulfill their potential as effective and popular smoking-cessation aids.”
Written by: Nancy Schimelpfening