Can E-Cigarettes Really Help Smokers Quit?

Everyone knows that cigarettes are bad for you, including smokers. Polls show that nearly 70% of smokers want to quit. [1] So, it’s not surprising that e-cigarettes (sometimes called e-cigs) are gaining in popularity as smokers attempt to make healthier choices.

But, are the increasing numbers of smokers who attempt to kick their habit with e-cigarettes more likely to succeed? One study says yes, but not all experts agree.

In Support of E-Cigarettes

Fans of e-cigarettes list two major pros: That the devices can help people quit smoking and that e-cigarettes remain a healthier option than tobacco cigarettes. 

“Healthier” because e-cigarettes use vapor to deliver nicotine to the body instead of smoke. After all, it's the smoke from tobacco cigarettes that's been proven as one of the causes of cancer. [2] However, with all potential risks of e-cigarettes still unknown, this claim is somewhat unsupported. [3]

A study performed by British researchers in 2014 suggests that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit. The study, published on May 21 in the journal Addiction, showed e-cigarette users to be 60% more likely to succeed at quitting when compared to those who tried an anti-smoking patch or gum. 

That same 60% statistic held true when the study’s authors compared the use of e-cigarettes as a quit-smoking aid to people who tried to quit using willpower alone. [2]

"It appears, at least for some people, e-cigarettes are a viable method of quitting that looks comparable to, if not better than, traditional nicotine replacement therapy," said Dr. Michael Siegel, in a WebMD article on e-cigarettes. [4]

A bonus for many would-be quitters is that e-cigarettes, unlike nicotine replacement therapies such as the patch or gum, offer many of the sensations and actions of regular cigarette smoking. This includes actually handling the device, inhaling and exhaling a cloud of vapor that looks like smoke. 

However, the fact remains that smoking is a notoriously tough habit to beat, and even e-cig-assisted quit rates were still low. The study found that only one-fifth of people who tried e-cigarettes as a stop-smoking aid succeeded in quitting long-term.

Against E-Cigarettes

Since publishing, the study in support of using e-cigarettes as a cessation aid has come under fire for sampling smokers who used the devices for a range of purposes—not just with quitting in mind. Critics stated that to gauge how helpful e-cigarettes are as a tobacco cessation aid, researchers must consider when and why the devices are being used. [4]

A more recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine March 2015 issue reported that electronic cigarettes do not help people curb or quit smoking.

"When used by a broad sample of smokers under 'real world' conditions, e-cigarette use did not significantly increase the chances of successfully quitting cigarette smoking," concluded the study's lead researcher, Dr. Pamela Ling, in an article by WebMD. [4]

Why the contradicting reports? It may be that those who had struggled to quit in the past were more likely to try e-cigarettes as a new method to help them quit. These smokers may have had a more difficult time quitting, regardless of their e-cigarette use.

E-Cigarettes: The Lesser of Two Evils?

Some smokers are taking up e-cigarettes with the assumption that even though they haven’t been conclusively proven safe, e-cigs are worth the risk because the harmful effects of regular cigarettes are well known. But are they making a wise decision, or simply trading one set of health risks for another?

It’s a case of “pick your poison:” Critics stand firm in stating that long-term effects of inhaling nicotine vapor are unclear. However, studies show that levels of chemicals detected in e-cigarettes' vapor are 1,000 times lower than in tobacco smoke.

Until conclusive evidence is reported, two concerns still remain clear:

1. E-Cigarette Liquids Contain Nicotine

Even though e-cigarette users are not breathing in smoke, they are still inhaling nicotine, an addictive substance. And it's nicotine in a liquid form, which organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association say has not been adequately tested for safety. [6]

2. E-Cigarettes Aren’t Regulated

These devices are not currently approved by the FDA for treating tobacco use and dependence. That may soon change, however, as the FDA Center for Tobacco Products will hold the third, and final, public workshop to obtain information on electronic cigarettes and how they relate to public health on June 1-2, 2015. [3]

Once these long-awaited regulations governing the electronic cigarette industry are in place, the FDA will have authority to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products by placing them under the same requirements.

Some Claim Big Tobacco Companies Are Bullying Possible Competitors

Big tobacco companies have pushed for a range of controls on e-cigarettes. These include lengthy health warnings, reduced product ranges, restricted sales, and scientific testing requirements.

When asked why Altria, the parent company of Marlboro cigarettes, advocated such strict controls on their competitors, a spokesman stated, “We had to do what we thought was right.” [5]

Big tobacco companies are concerned for our health? Possibly. However, those lengthy and costly trials might hurt the smaller companies that represent many e-cigarette brands—something to consider when you next read a report on the unknown dangers of e-cigarettes.

Bottom Line? Buyers Beware

Anecdotal evidence from e-cigarette makers and users continues to come up against arguments from regulatory agencies and health experts.

Yes, recent reports have found that some e-cigarettes may contain harmful byproducts that might increase the risk for cancer. Yes, they remain unsubstantiated as a smoking cessation aid. E-cigarette brands that claim otherwise are simply taking advantage of the remaining window before FDA regulations kick in.

Alternatively, toxicity tests do indicate that e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes.

"If all the other methods have failed for an individual, it’s a disservice not to offer this other alternative," says Dr. Siegel. "In the long run, I think you are better off quitting than not quitting, even if e-cigarettes are the way that you quit.” [4]

The bottom line is that both sides make some worthwhile points and it’s really up to the end user to decide whether or not the potential risk of e-cigarettes outweighs the possible edge the devices could add to your quitting efforts. 

Interested in making the switch? We cover what to look for in A Beginners Guide For Starting With E-Cigs.

References:

  1. CDC Fast Facts
  2. American Cancer Society
  3. FDA: Electronic Cigarettes (e-Cigarettes)
  4. Can E-Cigarettes Help You Quit Smoking?
  5. Special Report: When it comes to e-cigs, Big Tobacco is concerned for your health
  6. Marketers of electronic cigarettes should halt unproved therapy claims

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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