Wider use of e-cigarettes has been linked to more people successfully quitting smoking, according to a new UK study.
Researchers estimated that use of e-cigarettes may have led to an extra 18,000 people in England kicking the habit long-term last year.
“Although these numbers are relatively small, they are clinically significant because of the huge health gains from stopping smoking,” stated the paper published in the British Medical Journal.
“A 40-year-old smoker who quits permanently can expect to gain nine life years compared with a continuing smoker,” it added.
The researchers from University College London analysed data on 43,000 smokers and other statistics such as use of NHS stop-smoking services.
They tried to factor in the impact of tobacco control policies, anti-smoking media campaigns and overall prevalence of smoking.
While they did not find a link between e-cigarette use and more people attempting to quit smoking, they suggested the devices may have helped those who have decided to try and stop.
“The increased prevalence of e-cigarettes in England does not appear to have been associated with a detectable change in attempts to stop smoking,” said the study authors.
“However, the increase in e-cigarette use has been associated with an increase in success of quit attempts,” they said.
Their findings may go some way to allaying concerns e-cigarette use could hamper attempts to give up smoking altogether.
The study findings “conflict with the hypothesis that an increase in population use of e-cigarettes undermines quitting in general”, noted the authors.
However, they stressed that they cannot draw any firm conclusions about cause and effect.
“The challenge for public health is to embrace the potential of this new technology”
Meanwhile, there was no clear evidence to link e-cigarette use with increased use of some other types of support to stop smoking, such as over-the-counter nicotine patches or NHS stop-smoking services.
In addition, increased use of e-cigarettes appeared to be linked to fewer people using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) on prescription. The authors said this association was difficult to explain.
“One possibility is that health professionals are discussing the options with patients who are then choosing to use e-cigarettes, perhaps having already tried NRT,” they said in the study paper.
Writing in the same edition of the BMJ, John Britton, director o the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham, said e-cigarettes were “one likely major contributor” in an ongoing drop in the numbers of people smoking.
“This significant year-on-year fall indicates that something in UK tobacco control policy is working, and successful quitting through substitution with e-cigarettes is one likely major contributor,” he said.
“The challenge for public health is to embrace the potential of this new technology, and put it to full use,” he added.