There has been much debate in recent months regarding whether electronic cigarettes are effective as a smoking cessation aid. Now, a new study published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control suggests the devices are mostly used by current smokers or smokers who have attempted to quit in the past year.

Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) are battery powered devices that are designed to simulate conventional cigarette smoking. The devices deliver nicotine vapor to the user as opposed to tobacco smoke.

The use of e-cigarettes has boomed in recent years. A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that among middle and high school students alone, e-cigarette use more than doubled in 2011-12.

As such, health professionals have questioned whether the devices are effective in helping smokers to quit the habit, or whether they encourage tobacco smoking. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which claims there is no association between e-cigarette use and reduced cigarette consumption.

But to the contrary, a more recent study from University College London in the UK suggests that e-cigarettes do help smokers quit after findings revealed that, among people attempting to stop smoking without professional help, those who use e-cigarettes are 60% more likely to succeed.

In this latest study, researchers from the University of Crete in Greece, Imperial College London in the UK, and the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, assessed the prevalence and determinants of e-cigarette use among 26,566 individuals from 27 countries that were a part of the European Union (EU) in 2012.

Study participants were required to complete a survey that asked them whether they had heard of e-cigarettes, whether they had ever tried them, how often they used them and whether they thought the devices were harmful to health.

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E-cigarette use was most common among individuals ages 15-24 who were current smokers of up to 20 cigarettes a day, and who had tried at least once to stop smoking in the past year.

Participants who were current smokers were also asked whether they had tried to quit smoking in the past 12 months and whether they had used e-cigarettes to help them do this. In addition, they asked current smokers what factors influenced their choice of cigarette brand, and whether such factors influenced their choice of e-cigarette brand.

Findings of the survey revealed that e-cigarette use was most common among individuals ages 15-24 who were current smokers of up to 20 cigarettes a day, and who had tried at least once to stop smoking in the past year.

Around 20.3% of smokers, 4.4% of ex-smokers and 1.1% of non-smokers had tried e-cigarettes. Of the non-smokers, 9% were now regular users of the devices. Participants under the age of 25 were found to be three times more likely to have tried an e-cigarette than those aged 55 and over.

Smokers who had tried to quit in the past year were twice as likely to have tried an e-cigarette, compared with those who had not attempted to quit smoking.

Based on their findings, the researchers calculated that as of 2012, 29.3 million adults in the EU had tried e-cigarettes.

Almost a third of participants were unsure whether e-cigarettes were harmful to health, while 4 out of 10 believed they were.

According to the researchers, factors that influenced a smokers choice of cigarette brain did not influence their choice of e-cigarette brand.

The team says their findings suggest that e-cigarettes do not appear to help smokers – particularly those of a younger age – stop using conventional cigarettes.

The study authors write:

Stressing the fact that age was the strongest determinant of e-cigarette use throughout EU, our study’s implications are strategically important for European policy makers.

On the one hand, quitting tobacco use at an earlier age would substantially benefit individuals and public health. However, the renormalization of smoking or ‘vaping’ in this context, or maintained nicotine addiction, may significantly hinder efforts to stop tobacco use.”

The researchers conclude that further research is warranted to assess the long-term effects of e-cigarettes on smoking, nicotine addiction and the health of consumers.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study by researchers at Virginia Tech, which suggests that the nicotine in e-cigarettes and other smoking cessation devices is carcinogenic (cancer-causing).