E-cigarettes are almost twice as effective at helping smokers give up tobacco than other alternatives such as nicotine patches or gum, according to a major new study.
There is already evidence that they are considerably less harmful than conventional cigarettes. Public Health England has called for them to be made available on the NHS within five years, but this is the first time their effectiveness at helping smokers quit has been measured on a large scale.
In the trial, 886 smokers attended NHS Stop Smoking Services in London, Leicester and East Sussex.
They were randomly given either a nicotine replacement treatment of their choice, or an e-cigarette starter pack with one or two refill bottles.
All participants received weekly one-to-one behavioural support for at least four weeks.
The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed e-cigarettes were used more frequently and for longer. In addition, e-cigarette users experienced less severe urges to smoke, one and four weeks after quitting.
They also reported less irritability, restlessness and poor concentration in the first week after giving up smoking.
Monitoring of the participants after a year found that 18% of the e-cigarette users had kicked the habit, compared to 9.9% of those using other nicotine replacement therapies including patches, chewing gum, lozenges, inhalators and sprays.
Lead researcher Professor Peter Hajek, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “This is the first trial to test the efficacy of modern e-cigarettes in helping smokers quit.
“E-cigarettes were almost twice as effective as the ‘gold standard’ combination of nicotine replacement products.
“Although a large number of smokers report that they have quit smoking successfully with the help of e-cigarettes, health professionals have been reluctant to recommend their use because of the lack of clear evidence from randomised controlled trials. This is now likely to change.”
Welcoming the study, Martin Dockrell, from Public Health England, said: “This landmark research shows that switching to an e-cigarette can be one of the most effective ways to quit smoking, especially when combined with face-to-face support.
“All stop smoking services should welcome smokers who want to quit with the help of an e-cigarette.”
While many scientists agree that they are much less harmful than tobacco products, e-cigarettes are themselves not without risks.
The nicotine in them is highly addictive and number of studies have shown that they contain a wide range of potentially toxic substances, the long-term effects of which have yet to be quantified.