Electronic cigarettes are sparking lots of skepticism from public health types worried they may be a gateway to regular smoking.
But the cigarettes, which use water vapor to deliver nicotine into the lungs, may be as good as the patch when it comes to stop-smoking aids, a study finds.
Smokers who used e-cigarettes in an attempt to quit the old-fashioned kind of cigarettes did about as well at stopping smoking as the people who tried the patch.
After six months, 7.3 percent of e-smokers had dropped cigarettes, compared to 5.8 percent of people wearing the patch.
Either way, quitting is hard. The number of people who quit was low overall — just 38 of the 584 smokers given the e-cig or the patch. That wasn't enough people to say for sure that one approach was better than the other.
"What we couldn't show is that [e-cigarettes are] definitely superior to nicotine patches," says Christopher Bullen, an associate professor at the University of Auckland who led the research. He and his colleagues figured that the e-cigarettes would be much more successful, based on consumer surveys showing that people were less than pleased with the patch.
Still, Bullen says, the low quit rates are what you might expect when people are trying to quit without much counseling or support. That and the batteries kept failing in the early model e-cigarettes. "We had to keep sending out batteries," Bullen told Shots.
All that said, some e-cigarette users were able to reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked, even if they didn't quit.
The results were presented at the European Respiratory Society meeting in Barcelona and published in The Lancet.
The researchers recruited 584 smokers in Auckland, New Zealand, who wanted to stop smoking. Half were given e-cigarettes and the other half got coupons for nicotine patches, which are typically prescribed as a stop-smoking aid. Another 73 smokers were given e-cigs without nicotine, as a control.
Those people also made progress in quitting smoking, with 4 percent off tobacco after six months. "I think that speaks to the behavioral replacement," Bullen says. "They're oral. They're tactile. There's a ritualistic thing where you prepare the product and put it in your mouth and draw on it."
The number of children and teenagers using e-cigarettes more than doubled in a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week. Numbers like that have public health officials in the United States worried that e-cigarettes will serve as a gateway to smoking cigarettes, which are much more toxic than e-cigarettes.
There's not yet evidence that that's happening, Bullen says. "I don't think that's an inevitable pathway." Efforts to regulate e-cigarettes could harm current smokers, he says. "For some people I think e-cigarettes will be part of the solution. But they're not going to be a magic bullet."