Do electronic cigarettes help people quit smoking?

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An analysis by researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that using e-cigarettes, even on a daily basis, did not help smokers stay smoke-free.

iStock / Andrey Popov via UC San Diego

Some studies have suggested that switching to e-cigarettes may help smokers avoid regular cigarettes, which typically contain more harmful chemicals when burned. But new research shows the opposite effect.

People who quit smoking and switched to another form of tobacco use, including e-cigarettes, were more likely to relapse to regular cigarettes a year later than those who quit completely by 8.5 percentage points, based on data from the Tobacco and Health Population Assessment. study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the US Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products.

Researchers followed 13,604 identified smokers between 2013 and 2015 over two years during which participants completed surveys about their consumption of 12 different tobacco products, such as cigars, pipes and hookahs.

The study was published on October 19 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“This is the first study to thoroughly examine whether a switch to a less harmful nicotine source can be sustained over time without relapsing to smoking,” said study lead author Dr John. Pierce, professor emeritus in the department of family medicine and public health at the University of California at San Diego, said in a press release.

“If switching to electronic cigarettes was a viable way to quit smoking, then those who switched to electronic cigarettes should have much lower relapse rates,” Pierce said. “We found no evidence of this.”

Of those who quit using all tobacco products, 50% managed to avoid regular cigarettes in the second follow-up with researchers a year later.

However, fewer people (41.5%) who initially quit and then switched to another method such as e-cigarettes were able to refrain from switching back to regular cigarettes. These adults were more likely to be white and to have higher incomes and addiction to tobacco, the researchers found.

They were also more likely to view e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes.

E-cigarettes are still relatively new, so scientists continue to learn more about the long-term health effects they can cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They contain fewer harmful chemicals than regular cigarettes, but the CDC notes that e-cigarette aerosols can contain carcinogenic chemicals and “tiny particles that go deep into the lungs.” Electronic cigarettes also contain nicotine, which is highly addictive.

Newer models of electronic cigarettes use nicotine salts which allow higher levels of the substance to be inhaled with less throat irritation. Experts say this feature could increase nicotine addiction in some people and cause others, especially teens and young adults, to try smoking for the first time.

Vitamin E acetate – a specific additive in some electronic cigarettes, primarily those that contain the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana called THC – “is strongly linked” to outbreaks of “lung injury associated with electronic cigarette use or vaping “, or EVALI, which peaked in September 2019.

The additive generally does not harm people when consumed as a vitamin supplement or rubbed into the skin, but it can disrupt lung function when inhaled, according to the CDC.

Researchers in the new study say a third follow-up survey is needed to better understand whether the switch from regular cigarettes to e-cigarettes and vice versa is a “pattern of chronic smoking cessation and relapse, or whether it is part of the progress towards success. leaving.”

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Katie Camero is a McClatchy National Real-Time Science reporter. She is a Boston University alumnus and has reported for the Wall Street Journal, Science and The Boston Globe.


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