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Public Health

Some Good News for the E-Cig Industry: Vaping Can Help Smokers Quit

The e-cigarette industry got some good news this week: A survey of almost 6,000 smokers in Britain trying to quit found that those who used electronic cigarettes were more likely to stop using smoking tobacco than those who used over-the-counter quitting aids or had no help at all.

The study, accepted by the journal Addiction and published online Tuesday, comes as U.S. regulators weigh new rules for nicotine vaporizers. The e-cig industry and public health officials are battling over whether the devices should be treated as less-harmful cigarettes that help smokers give up tobacco or as a gateway that will lead adolescents to a deadly habit. Investigators from a cancer research center at the University College London conducted the study, which was partially funded with government and drug industry grants. None of the authors reported financial ties to e-cigarette companies, which adds to the report’s credibility.

The latest analysis drew on surveys of British households from 2009 to 2014 and counted smokers who had tried to quit within the past 12 months. A majority used no help, about one-third tried over-the-counter aids, such as nicotine patches or gums, and 8 percent used e-cigarettes. The study excluded people who used prescription medicines or counseling to quit smoking, as well as those who used both e-cigs and nicotine replacement. E-cig users were more likely to have stopped smoking tobacco by the time of the survey than either of the other groups.

While surely welcome news for fans of vaping, these survey results are not the kind of evidence that proves e-cigarettes are effective quitting aids and would let the industry market them as such. For that, regulators want to see rigorous, randomized control trials that compare e-cigs with placebo treatments. E-cigarettes are also an evolving technology, with varying formulas and designs that may have different effects on users. And the research doesn’t address whether smokers relapse more when using e-cigs than other quitting methods.

Scientists also haven’t established what risks e-cigarettes might pose to long-term users. It’s impossible to know how these products will affect people over decades, because the products are less than 10 years old. Other risks associated with e-cig use: They occasionally explode, and children or pets may accidentally consume the poisonous liquid if it’s left unsecured.

While vaping is widely believed to be safer than inhaling tobacco smoke, it’s “not safer than just breathing clean air,” as Dr. Richard Hurt, former director of the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Center, said in a recent interview. Other research in the U.S. suggests that smokers’ perception that e-cigarettes are less harmful is declining.

Still, many people report anecdotally that e-cigs help them trade a habit known to be deadly for one presumed to be less dangerous, even when other approaches failed. To the extent that e-cigs help people quit inhaling tobacco, the study says, “e-cigarettes may substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking.”

Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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