E-cigarettes are more effective than nicotine-replacement therapy in helping smokers quit

The latest Cochrane Review finds high certainty evidence that nicotine e-cigarettes are more effective than traditional nicotine-replacement therapy (NRT) in helping people quit smoking.

Research led by the University of Oxford, and funded by Cancer Research UK, has found the strongest evidence yet that e-cigarettes, also known as ‘vapes’, help people to quit smoking better than traditional nicotine replacement therapies, such as patches and chewing gums.

New evidence published today in the Cochrane Library finds high certainty evidence that people are more likely to stop smoking for at least six months using nicotine e-cigarettes, or ‘vapes’, than using nicotine replacement therapies, such as patches and gums. Evidence also suggested that nicotine e-cigarettes led to higher quit rates than e-cigarettes without nicotine, or no stop smoking intervention, but less data contributed to these analyses. The updated Cochrane review includes 78 studies in over 22,000 participants – an addition of 22 studies since the last update in 2021.

Smoking is a significant global health problem. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2020, 22.3% of the global population used tobacco, despite it killing up to half of its users. Stopping smoking reduces the risk of lung cancer, heart attacks and many other diseases. Though most people who smoke want to quit, many find it difficult to do so permanently. Nicotine patches and gum are safe, effective and widely used methods to help individuals quit.

E-cigarettes heat liquids with nicotine and flavourings, allowing users to ‘vape’ nicotine instead of smoking. Data from the review showed that if six in 100 people quit by using nicotine replacement therapy, eight to twelve would quit by using electronic cigarettes containing nicotine. This means an additional two to six people in 100 could potentially quit smoking with nicotine containing electronic cigarettes.

Dr Jamie Hartmann-Boyce, Associate Professor at Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, Editor of the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group, and an author of the new publication, said: ‘Electronic cigarettes have generated a lot of misunderstanding in both the public health community and the popular press since their introduction over a decade ago. These misunderstandings discourage some people from using e-cigarettes as a stop smoking tool. Fortunately, more and more evidence is emerging and provides further clarity. With support from Cancer Research UK, we search for new evidence every month as part of a living systematic review. We identify and combine the strongest evidence from the most reliable scientific studies currently available.

‘For the first time, this has given us high-certainty evidence that e-cigarettes are even more effective at helping people to quit smoking than traditional nicotine replacement therapies, like patches or gums.’

In studies comparing nicotine e-cigarettes to nicotine replacement treatment, significant side effects were rare. In the short-to-medium term (up to two years), nicotine e-cigarettes most typically caused throat or mouth irritation, headache, cough, and feeling nauseous. However, these effects appeared to diminish over time.

Dr Nicola Lindson, University Research Lecturer at the Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group‘s Managing Editor, and author of the publication said: ‘E-cigarettes do not burn tobacco; and as such they do not expose users to the same complex mix of chemicals that cause diseases in people smoking conventional cigarettes. E-cigarettes are not risk free, and shouldn’t be used by people who don’t smoke or aren’t at risk of smoking. However, evidence shows that nicotine e-cigarettes carry only a small fraction of the risk of smoking. In our review, we did not find evidence of substantial harms caused by nicotine containing electronic cigarettes when used to quit smoking. However, due to the small number of studies and lack of data on long-term nicotine-containing electronic cigarette usage – usage over more than two years – questions remain about long-term effects.’

The researchers conclude that more evidence, particularly about the effects of newer e-cigarettes with better nicotine delivery than earlier ones, is needed to assist more people quit smoking. Longer-term data is also needed.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘We welcome this report which adds to a growing body of evidence showing that e-cigarettes are an effective smoking cessation tool. We strongly discourage those who have never smoked from using e-cigarettes, especially young people. This is because they are a relatively new product and we don’t yet know the long term health effects.

‘While the long term effects of vaping are still unknown, the harmful effects of smoking are indisputable – smoking causes around 55,000 cancer deaths in the UK every year. Cancer Research UK supports balanced evidence-based regulation on e-cigarettes from UK governments which maximises their potential to help people stop smoking, whilst minimising the risk of uptake among others.’

The full paper, ‘Electronic cigarettes for smoking cessation‘, can be read in the Cochrane Library.

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