E-cigarettes divide the scientific community. Recent research delves into the data for answers.
Over the past few years, for better or worse, e-cigarettes have barely left the headlines.
As of early 2014, there were 466 brands and 7,764 unique flavors of e-cigarette products.
From 2003-2014, the sale of e-cigarettes has grown exponentially year on year. This surge has prompted much debate and investigation.
Health concerns over carcinogens and worries that e-cigarettes offer a newer, softer route into the world of tobacco smoking have dominated popular news.
Despite the clear and unabashed prevalence of this new trend, data and analysis regarding its effectiveness as a smoking cessation aid is difficult to dissect.
The tough data of quitting
Reliable information is hard to come by, partly because the habit of smoking is a fluid issue; some people smoke occasionally, some smoke both cigarettes and their electronic counterparts, others fluctuate between the two, and others might intermittently use other nicotine replacement aids, like patches or gum.
To further muddy the murky waters, some smokers quit tobacco but then take up e-cigarettes as a way to prevent relapse. And when has a quitter quit? After 3 clear months? Or maybe 12 months of abstinence? The variables to consider are bewildering.
The team from University College London (UCL) delved into questionnaire data taken during the stratospheric rise of e-cigarettes; they recently published their findings in the journal Addiction. According to author Prof. Robert West:
"E-cigarettes appear to be helping a significant number of smokers to stop who would not have done otherwise - not as many as some e-cigarette enthusiasts claim, but a substantial number nonetheless."
The team found that 16,000-22,000 people in England (who would have otherwise continued smoking) stopped smoking courtesy of e-cigarettes. These results seem like positive findings, and to a certain extent, they are. However, they are substantially less than the numbers given by some e-cigarette supporters and manufacturers; plenty of questions remain.
Below is the rough train of thought that the UCL team used to arrive at the report's findings:
- In early 2014, 19.3% of people over 16 years of age in England smoked, equating to 8.46 million people
- During 2014, 37.3% of the English smoking population attempted to quit at least once (3.16 million people)
- Of those individuals who tried to quit, 28.2% or 891,000 people, used e-cigarettes rather than nicotine replacement aids, such as patches, or counseling
- At the 1-year mark, success rates for quitting without any assistance, including nicotine replacement, is roughly 5%
- Questionnaire data has shown that using an e-cigarette in a quit attempt increases the chances of success by around 50%, compared with no help or buying nicotine replacement items from a shop (in the UK, nicotine replacement therapies purchased from a shop have been found to have no increased success rate, unless they are accompanied by professional support)
- It is therefore estimated that 2.5% of the smokers who used an e-cigarette in their quit attempt in England (22,000 individuals) succeeded who would have failed if they had used nothing or nicotine replacement from a shop.
The results seem to show that e-cigarettes, at least as far as quitting smoking conventional cigarettes is concerned, have had a positive impact on the problem. But there are still multiple unanswered questions to bat around.
Deepening e-cigarette queries
Although the UCL team has access to reams of data, there will always be questions that cannot be answered without further, more pointed information mining. One question, raised by dissenters, is that of non-smokers being tempted into smoking tobacco by the lure of e-cigarettes. The UCL team rejects this:
"Regular use of e-cigarettes by never smokers is extremely rare, and the decline in smoking prevalence in young people has been as great or greater than in previous years."
Other questions that the authors hope to answer in the future include the issue of whether using e-cigarettes while continuing to smoke might reduce the number of attempts at quitting further down the line.
Prof. West also asks whether smokers who quit using e-cigarettes might be more or less prone to relapses. These questions, and others like them, will take many years and great silos of data to illuminate.
Medical News Today recently covered research that pointed in the opposite direction and asked whether e-cigarettes might reduce chance of smokers quitting.