A device used overseas as a replacement for smoking has been trialled for use in New Zealand, to try to encourage more people to quit smoking.
The University of Auckland's clinical trials research unit asked 48 smokers - including me - to try a new product called the e-cigarette, made by Ruyan in Hong Kong.
Designed to mimic cigarettes, it is available in more than 40 countries, but not in New Zealand yet. It can be bought online for about $250.
It is often used overseas as a smoking replacement, but researchers here were investigating its possible use as a new form of nicotine replacement therapy, which Dr Hayden McRobbie, research fellow at the institute, strongly advocates.
He said he was not surprised by the latest figures suggesting the ban on smoking in workplaces had had little effect on the numbers of New Zealanders who smoke.
He said the smoking ban had changed the way people smoked - more people were cutting down and not smoking around friends and family - but only making cigarettes more expensive would see more people quit.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of smoking in the world.
"A tax increase is definitely one of the best ways to prompt people to quit, especially young people, who are more sensitive to price increases because they don't have a lot of cash," Dr McRobbie said.
But he said he was encouraged by programmes such as Quitline and Aukati Kai Paipa, the smoking cessation service aimed at Maori women. Quitline received 77,135 calls between July 2006 and June 2007, and Aukati Kai Paipa aims to help 5000 Maori women and their whanau this year.
Smoking rates among Maori are significantly higher than the rest of the population, at 45.8 per cent.
In Pacific Island communities the rate is 36.2 per cent.
Dr McRobbie said he was always looking for new and cheaper ways to help people stop smoking.
"The best way to do it is a combination of medicine and support."
The e-cigarette could be available in New Zealand this year if it is approved by health authorities.
The e-cigarette contains a nicotine cartridge in four strengths - 16mg, 11mg, 6mg and 0mg, compared with the 13mg in the average manufactured cigarette. One cartridge lasts for 300 to 350 puffs, or two days. It also has a battery that enables it to emit a mist of propylene glycol, essentially fake, fast-dissipating smoke, and light up at the end when puffed on.
In countries outside New Zealand it is often used as a replacement for smoking. It contains no tobacco or any of the dangerous chemicals in manufactured and roll-your-own cigarettes.
Herald reporter Brooke Donovan trials latest quitting gadget
DAY 1: E-CIGARETTE
It's 7.30am and I haven't been allowed a cigarette since 8pm yesterday, but the novelty factor of the e-cigarette more than makes up for the inconvenience. It's about the same size as an old-fashioned cigarette holder and emits fake smoke. I feel like I'm in the movies. I'm asked to fill out a questionnaire about how I feel 10 minutes before using the product, including how badly I want a cigarette, how irritable I am, how bad is the urge to smoke and how poor my concentration is. The same questions are answered numerous times in the hour after using the product. In another part of the study, subjects will have blood taken at various stages during the hour to measure how much nicotine is in their systems.
DAY 2: E-CIGARETTE
Today it seems I have the other version of the e-cigarette, which is either a lower dose or a placebo. Today is not the day to suffer withdrawals, being tired. The novelty of the e-cigarette had worn off a bit and there was no smoke, so it wasn't nearly as interesting. I didn't last the day without a cigarette and went back to the study in the afternoon to find that in fact my e-cigarette doesn't seem to be working.
DAY 3: INHALER
Undoubtedly the least pleasant of the trial days for me. The inhalers make my throat itch, but I'm told to try and get through six of the nicotine cartridges that go inside the inhaler in one day. The constant puffing on something that is not a cigarette makes me want a cigarette even more. So I have three.
DAY 4: CIGARETTES
Finally the day when I can smoke my own ciggies and report back on how lovely and non-irritable they make me feel. Also I don't have to make my way back to Auckland University's Tamaki campus in afternoon traffic to spend 10 minutes filling in the questionnaire about how the product made me feel. The trial doesn't stop there. We can volunteer for Stub It, in which a mentor will advise and support us via video messages on our mobiles as we stop smoking, or a study of how the voices of people who smoke change after they quit.
The trial, apparently, split the subjects into two camps - those who loved the product and those who couldn't quite see the point. I fall into the latter group. Puffing on a fake cigarette just made me want a real one even more, and I can't see that it would help me quit. However, the novelty factor works in its favour, it's a lot more pleasant to use than the inhaler and let's face it, it's better than inhaling fatal chemicals so it's worth a shot.
* For more information on stopping smoking go to www.quit.org.nz, www.smokeless.org.nz or call 0800 778 778.