Sep. 7, 2013 at 6:01 PM ET
Electronic cigarettes work about as well as nicotine patches in helping smokers kick the habit, researchers report. And e-cigarettes helped people smoke fewer cigarettes overall, even if they didn’t quit completely.
The study is the first major piece of research to show that the products, which deliver a nicotine mist using a cigarette-shaped pipe, can actually benefit smokers.
The findings, published in the Lancet medical journal, are not quite enough to make public health experts embrace e-cigarettes, which are not yet regulated and which are growing in popularity. But it’s enough to make them look more closely at whether there may be some benefit to them.
“You're trading one addiction for another addiction,” Dr. Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of the anti-tobacco Legacy Foundation, told NBC News. "(But) it may be that for some people, this will be a better way to quit, and there may be people who've tried other things and haven't been able to quit who will quit with this."
For the study, Chris Bullen of the University of Auckland in New Zealand and colleagues recruited 657 smokers who wanted to quit. They divided them into three groups, to get either 13 weeks’ supply of e-cigarettes, nicotine patches or placebo e-cigarettes that contained no nicotine.
After six months, 5.7 percent of the volunteers had managed to completely quit smoking. It was slightly more in the e-cigarette group, but not in a way that was statistically significant, Bullen reported.
It’s very difficult to quit smoking, but the e-cigarettes also appeared to have helped people cut back on real tobacco. Bullen’s team found that 57 percent of volunteers given real e-cigarettes were smoking half as many cigarettes a day as before, compared to 41 percent of those who got patches.
“While our results don’t show any clear-cut differences between e-cigarettes and patches in terms of quit success after six months, it certainly seems that e-cigarettes were more effective in helping smokers who didn’t quit to cut down,” Bullen said in a statement.
“It’s also interesting that the people who took part in our study seemed to be much more enthusiastic about e-cigarettes than patches, as evidenced by the far greater proportion of people in both of the e-cigarette groups who said they’d recommend them to family or friends, compared to patches.”
Healton said that was a provocative finding. “It does also suggest consumer acceptability of the product is higher,” she said.
U.S. health officials are very concerned about the rise in popularity of e-cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration released a report on Thursday showing a doubling in the number of high school students who have tried them, to 10 percent.
More than 21 percent of adults have tried them at least once, but the CDC says they are addictive and may themselves be dangerous.
“We don’t know much about them,” says Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health. But he says they could potentially be useful if tobacco companies would stop making products like cigarettes and make e-cigarettes instead – and if those e-cigarettes did indeed turn out to be less harmful than conventional cigarettes.
“Our nirvana is a world where nobody is dying from death and disease caused by tobacco,” McAfee told NBC News. “If you have a product that doesn’t kill people, that is where the money should be going, that is where the promotion, the marketing should be going.”
They are pricey - an e-cigarette product ranges from $10 to $120, depending on how many charges it provides. And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of brands. FDA says some appear to contain carcinogens, and there is some evidence that nicotine is not only addictive, but may itself damage health.
“They could have inherent dangers that are greater than using something like gum or the patch,” Healton said.
CDC says tobacco is the leading preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States, killing 443,000 people a year.
Public health experts are desperate for ways to help people quit smoking, but it is hard. The American Cancer Society says only 4 percent to 7 percent of people manage to quit on any single given try. Drugs such as Chantix or Zyban can raise this rate to 25 percent.
There’s also counseling, nicotine gum and patches, hypnosis and acupuncture, and companies are working on anti-nicotine vaccines.
Erika Edwards contributed to this report.