LONDON — Electronic cigarettes worked just as well as nicotine patches to help smokers quit, according to the first study to compare them.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated products that look like real cigarettes and turn nicotine into a vapor inhaled by the user. Since the devices hit the market nearly a decade ago, sales have spiked so quickly that some analysts predict they will outsell traditional cigarettes within a decade.
“This research provides an important benchmark for e-cigarettes,” said Chris Bullen, director of the National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, the study’s lead author. Until now, there has been little information about the effectiveness or safety of e-cigarettes. “We have now shown they are about as effective as a standard nicotine-replacement product.”
Bullen and colleagues recruited 657 adult smokers in Auckland who wanted to quit. Nearly 300 got nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, while roughly the same number got nicotine patches. Just over 70 people got placebo e-cigarettes without any nicotine. Each group used the e-cigarettes or patches for 13 weeks.
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After six months, similar rates of smokers — 6 to 7 percent — managed to quit after using either the nicotine-containing e-cigarettes or patches. Only 4 percent of smokers using the placebo e-cigarettes successfully quit.
Among smokers who hadn’t managed to quit, nearly 60 percent of those using e-cigarettes had cut down the number of cigarettes smoked by at least half versus 41 percent of those using nicotine patches.
Smokers were also much bigger fans of the e-cigarettes than the patches. Nearly 90 percent of e-cigarette users said they would recommend them to a friend compared with just over half who got patches.
Researchers also found similar rates of side effects in smokers that used the e-cigarettes and the patches. The most common side effect in all groups was breathing problems.
The study was published online Sunday in the journal Lancet and presented at a meeting of the European Respiratory Society in Barcelona, Spain. The e-cigarettes used in the study were provided free by the company, and the study was paid for by the Health Research Council of New Zealand, a government funder.
Peter Hajek, an anti-smoking expert at Queen Mary University of London, called it a “pioneering” study and said health officials should consider recommending e-cigarettes to smokers who want to quit or cut down.
“E-cigarettes also have the potential to replace cigarettes as a consumer product, so their value is not just as a treatment,” he said.
Hajek authored an accompanying commentary in the Lancet. “That could stop the tobacco-related disease and death epidemic if everyone switches to a safer way of nicotine delivery,” he said
Hajek said that even though more studies were needed on the long-term safety of e-cigarettes, there weren’t any imminent warning signs.
The European Union and Britain are planning to regulate e-cigarettes as medical devices.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration plans soon to assert regulatory authority over the fast-growing category. E-cigarettes also still could be regulated as drugs or drug-delivery devices, if they are “marketed for therapeutic purposes” — for example, as a stop-smoking aid.