E-cigarettes are more effective than nicotine patches at helping people to cut down on smoking, a New Zealand study has found, as public health bodies around the world weigh up a potential role for the devices in future quit smoking campaigns.
The devices, which deliver a small nicotine hit but do not contain any of the toxic chemicals that make tobacco so harmful, are growing in popularity all over the world. In the UK, they are set to be licensed as medicines, with manufacturers under pressure to meet strict regulatory guidelines by 2016.
In the first controlled study to compare e-cigarettes to another tobacco replacement product, researchers in New Zealand found that well over half the participants in a group given the devices reduced their cigarette consumption by at least 50 per cent over six months - compared to just two fifths of a group given nicotine patches.
Although both groups saw equal numbers of people quitting altogether - one in 20 - the group that used e-cigarettes were far more enthusiastic about their quitting or cutting back strategy.
In the e-cigarettes group, a third of participants were still using the devices after six months, compared to less than one in 10 in the patches group. Those who used e-cigarettes were also far more likely to recommend them to friends.
The study, published in The Lancet and conducted by the University of Auckland, recruited 657 smokers. Just under 300 were assigned to each group, and a small sub-group were given placebo e-cigarettes that did not contain nicotine. Researchers also found that there were no adverse health effects in the e-cigarettes, compared to the nicotine patch group.
"Given the increasing popularity of these devices in many countries, and the accompanying regulatory uncertainty and inconsistency, larger, longer-term trials are urgently needed to establish whether these devices might be able to fulfil their potential as effective and popular smoking cessation aids," said Professor Chris Bullen, director of Auckland's National Institute for Health Innovation.