TAMPA - E-cigarettes are twice as effective as nicotine patches or gum at helping people quit smoking traditional cigarettes, according to a major British study Wednesday, involving nearly 900 people.
The report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 18 percent of smokers who switched to battery powered vaping devices were able to steer clear of combustible cigarettes for one year, compared to 9.9 percent of people who relied on nicotine replacement therapies to quit.
"This is the first trial to test the efficacy of modern e-cigarettes in helping smokers quit," said lead researcher Peter Hajek, a professor at Queen Mary University of London.
"E-cigarettes were almost twice as effective as the 'gold standard' combination of nicotine replacement products."
However, people who switched to vaping were far more likely to keep vaping, indicating they may have exchanged one nicotine delivery device for another, without ever beating their addiction.
The trial randomly assigned 886 people who sought help to quit smoking in Britain to receive either a 3-month supply of a nicotine replacement treatment of their choice -- such as patches, gum, lozenges, sprays, inhalators, or a combination -- or an e-cigarette starter pack with one or two bottles of nicotine-containing liquid.
The vaping group was encouraged to buy future supplies in their own choice of nicotine strengths and flavors, which include fruit, candy and mint.
Counseling and behavioral support were offered once a week for at least a month.
When researchers checked back after a year, they found that 80 percent of e-cigarette users who had managed to steer clear of combustible cigarettes were still vaping regularly.
Just nine percent of those who had quit cigarettes for a year in the nicotine replacement group were still using patches, gum or other substitutes.
For that reason, an accompanying editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine urged caution.
"While e-cigarettes are 'safer' than traditional cigarettes, they are not without risks," wrote Belinda Borrelli, professor of health policy at Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine, and George O'Connor, professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
The ongoing vaping habit among those in the e-cigarette arm of the study "raises concerns about the health consequences of long-term e-cigarette use," they added, noting that "e-cigarette vapor contains many toxins" though the levels and their effects are generally considered to be lower than those coming from cigarette smoke.
Another concern is vaping's popularity with youths, as America grapples with a 78 percent surge in e-cigarette use among high school students from 2017-2018, which the US Surgeon General has described as an "epidemic."
"Adult use may not only expose children to e-cigarette vapor but also models addictive behavior," and boosts the risk that kids will take up combustible cigarettes themselves one day, the editorial said.
In the United States and Britain, cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death, taking some 480,000 lives each year in the US and more than 100,000 in Britain.
British experts said the findings could change the way health care providers talk about e-cigarettes, possibly leading more of them to encourage smokers to try vaping as a way to wean themselves off traditional cigarettes.
"The UK specialist stop smoking services will now be more likely to include e-cigarettes among their treatment options, and health professionals will feel more comfortable in recommending e-cigarettes as a stop-smoking intervention," said study author Dunja Przulj from Queen Mary University of London.
"This may ultimately further accelerate the reduction in smoking and in smoking related diseases."
According to Martin Dockrell, tobacco control lead at Public Health England, "this landmark research shows that switching to an e-cigarette can be one of the most effective ways to quit smoking, especially when combined with face-to-face support."