E-cigarettes beating patches and gum for quitting smoking

Long-term use of e-cigarettes carries some risks, new research shows

People who use e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking are 60 per cent more likely to end the habit than those who try to stop smoking with the help of nicotine patches, or gum, or just using willpower, according to research published today.

The efforts of more than 5,000 people to quit the habit were tracked between 2009 and 2014 for the research carried out by the University College of London, which was largely funded by Cancer Research UK.

Long-term use of e-cigarettes probably carries some risks, however, said Prof Robert West, who noted that most e-cigarette brands on the market – which are being updated within months of their launch – use propylene glycol to create “stage smoke”.

“We can’t regard smoking e-cigarettes as like breathing fresh air – it is going to carry some harm. The jury is out about the precise health effects but they are going to be an order of magnitude less than smoking,” he said.

The UCL team said they were surprised by the low rate of success experienced by smokers attempting to quit through the use of nicotine patches and gum that are available without prescription.

“There are many reasons for this: people tend not to use nicotine-replacement treatments for long enough. It is like using an antibiotic for a couple of days and then thinking it is going to cure you – it doesn’t work like that,” said Prof West.

Smoking is less popular in England than it has been for 80 years, with fewer than one in five now addicted to the habit.

However, that still means that 8.5 million regularly smoke. Of these, four million try to stop every year.

One million people last year used e-cigarettes to quit, while another one million bought them to cut down, though there is “minuscule” evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes are becoming popular with people who have never smoked tobacco.

Regulations on sale
Regulations to ensure that they are not marketed with the help of glamorous images or sold to minors are needed, he said, but he warned EU regulations that are to come into force in 2016 are badly drafted.

Under the regulations, the amount of nicotine that can be contained in each e-cigarette cartridge will be limited, but e-cigarettes are inefficient in terms of their ability to get nicotine into a smoker’s lung, said Prof West. “Very little nicotine actually gets into the lungs. It is terrifically difficult to get nicotine into the lungs in any form other than by attaching it to a carcinogenic tar particle,” he said, speaking at the launch of the research.

Indeed, he said, most tobacco smokers fail to absorb the six milligrams of nicotine that is contained in today’s medium-strength cigarettes because they don’t “puff often enough, or hold their breath for long enough.

“If they tried to do they would get sick.”

Improved design
The European Union order to keep nicotine strengths "below a certain level will make it difficult with the current technology for users to get the amount they need to give them what they want". However, e-cigarette design is improving.