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E-cigarettes linked to helping people quit smoking

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This new study surveyed over 160,000 people

Photograph by Ecig Click (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Electronic cigarettes help people trying to quit smoking, according to a new study that helps to settle a long-running debate over the risks and benefits of e-cigs.

For the study, published today in the journal BMJ, researchers analyzed survey data from over 160,000 people spanning almost 15 years. They found that smokers who used e-cigs tried to quit smoking more often and succeeded (for at least three months) more often than smokers who didn’t use e-cigs. Overall, more people quit in the latest year that data was available — the 2014–15 year — than in the 2010–11 year.

E-cigarettes vaporize liquid nicotine, so they deliver the drug directly instead of burning tobacco and creating tar, which has cancer-causing chemicals. As vaping becomes more popular, there’s been a lot of debate over the role of e-cigs. Some say that they’re healthier than actual cigarettes, but others argue that their popularity lures nonsmokers into smoking, or that people think it’s healthy so they try less hard to quit.

Even if they’re “healthier” than regular cigarettes, e-cigs still aren’t great: cancer-causing chemicals have been found in e-cigs, and vaping might still increase your risk of heart disease. Attitudes also vary geographically. The United Kingdom has been very supportive of e-cigs as smoking-cessation tools, while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has instead focused on their potential dangers.

Today’s study didn’t address whether e-cigs are luring people who would otherwise be nonsmokers. But it did find that e-cigs do have a role in helping people quit. The researchers looked at several population surveys that cover the years 2001 to 2015. These surveys provided smoking-cessation rates, and the most recent survey, from 2014 to 2015, had information about e-cigarette usage.

The results show that 65 percent of e-cigarette users had tried to quit smoking, versus 40 percent of people who smoked but didn’t use e-cigs. About 8 percent of e-cig users succeeded in quitting for at least three months, compared to about 5 percent of non-users. Overall, the number of people who quit smoking increased by 1.1 percentage points in 2015 from 2011. This might not seem that impressive, but it still represents about 350,000 people.

This is one of the largest representative samples of e-cig users, but the study does have limitations. It used surveys, which don’t tend to offer the most detailed information, such as the type of e-cig used. And the results don’t mean that e-cigs get all the credit for the good news. The authors write that things like national ad campaigns against smoking and a tobacco tax probably helped, too. This suggests that, in some cases, e-cigs may do more good, however, and maybe it’s time to take another look at attitudes surrounding the technology.