Do e-cigarettes help break the nicotine habit, or make it harder to quit?

One study says electronic cigarettes boost smoking cessation success rates by 60 percent. Another says e-cigarettes merely shift the nicotine habit to another delivery device. What are would-be quitters to do?

Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP
Store manager Jessica Tyron holds an e-cigarette while waiting for a customer at Sweet Creek Vapors in East Ridge, Tenn., on May 9.

Electronic cigarettes may help smokers kick the nicotine habit – or they may not. It depends on which study you read.

A five-year study of 6,000 British smokers conducted by researchers at University College London (UCL) suggests that smokers who use electronic cigarettes to quit smoking have a 60 percent higher success rate than those who use other nicotine-cessation products, such as patches or gum, or those who try to go it alone. The UCL researchers will publish their findings online Tuesday in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Addiction. 

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs as they are commonly called, do not burn tobacco but instead heat a liquid nicotine solution, which is vaporized and inhaled by the user. The flameless cigarettes have become increasingly popular in recent years among smokers who are trying to quit, reduce their toxin intake, or satisfy nicotine craving without exposing others to secondhand smoke.

Opponents of e-cigs charge that the devices are a stepping stone, for teenagers, to traditional cigarettes and a crutch for smokers who otherwise would have quit.

Electronic cigarettes could become a valuable tool in smoking cessation, argues Robert West, UCL’s director of tobacco studies, lead author of the study, and Addiction’s editor in chief.

"E-cigarettes could substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking," Dr. West said in a statement.

However, a comprehensive review of 83 peer-reviewed papers on electronic cigarettes published last week by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco suggests that e-cigarettes may not be effective as quit-smoking aids.

The UCSF paper, published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation on May 12, suggests that smokers relying on e-cigarettes to quit were actually a third less likely to quit smoking than those who did not use e-cigarettes.

While some smokers opt for the leafless cigarettes because they perceive them to be less harmful than tobacco, many e-cigarette users make the switch with the hope of eventually quitting, said Stanton Glanz, director of UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education and co-author of the UCSF paper.

The apparent discrepancy between these two studies underscores the need for additional data on the effects of inhaling nicotine-laced vapor on human health and e-cigarettes' efficacy as a cessation tool.

An editorial published in the June issue of Addiction calls for “an accurate and evidence-based debate” among researchers to help tease out the risks and potential benefits associated with this latest nicotine-delivery system.

“There is ongoing debate within the nicotine and tobacco research community concerning whether electronic cigarettes will offer a way out of the smoking epidemic or a way of perpetuating it,” the editorial states. “Robustly designed, implemented and accurately reported scientific evidence will be the best tool we have to help us predict and shape which of these realities transpires.”

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