New research suggests electronic cigarettes could play a major role in boosting public health by improving smokers’ chances of quitting their deadly habit.
The study found e-cigarettes, which have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years, can improve the success rate of people trying to quit smoking by 60 per cent compared with nicotine patches and gum, or relying on will power alone.
It is possible doctors could prescribe the products on the NHS once they are licensed as medicines in years to come.
But in the meantime, campaigners in Scotland called for more research to monitor the effects of e-cigarettes on the nation’s smoking habits.
The researchers, from University College London, said their widespread appeal meant the smoking simulators could significantly help improve the nation’s health by cutting use of tobacco.
But they also cautioned that using NHS stop-smoking services still had the best results for smokers hoping to kick the habit.
Despite their increasing popularity, concerns have been raised that e-cigarettes may continue to normalise smoking, particularly among younger people.
And while they are widely seen as less dangerous than tobacco, others have raised fears about the quality of some products, often imported from overseas.
The latest findings follow a survey of 5,863 smokers in England who had attempted to stop smoking without the aid of prescription medication or professional support.
Of those using e-cigarettes, a fifth reported having quit “real” cigarettes at the time the study was carried out.
This was 60 per cent higher than those who relied on products such as gum and patches, or simply their own will power to try to quit.
The research, published in the journal Addiction, suggests that e-cigarettes could play a positive role in reducing smoking rates, the experts said.
Study leader Professor Robert West, from University College London, said: “E-cigarettes could substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking.
“However, we should also recognise that the strongest evidence remains for use of the NHS stop-smoking services.
“These almost triple a smoker’s odds of successfully quitting compared with going it alone or relying on over-the-counter products.”
Prof West acknowledged that some quitters may want to keep using e-cigarettes indefinitely, and it was not clear whether or not this carried long-term health risks.
Figures released last year showed in Scotland, more than 13,000 people die every year from tobacco use.
Statistics also showed the average UK smoker spends about £1,750 a year on cigarettes.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has already announced plans to regulate e-cigarettes as medicines from 2016, though companies have been allowed to continue to sell their products in the run-up to this deadline.
Sheila Duffy, chief executive of ASH Scotland, said: “There is nothing on general sale that is as lethal as tobacco and we believe that e-cigarettes will prove to be less harmful than smoking.
“For many smokers, these products seem to be a very effective method of nicotine replacement.
“If they can be used to cut down and quit, that is great because it will save lives.
“However, we have concerns about tobacco companies buying into the market.”
E-cigarette companies welcomed the findings of the research.
Andrew Payne, director of Socialites Zero, said: “By offering e-cigarettes as an alternative to cigarettes we can help save thousands of lives a year.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Although e-cigarettes are not proven to be safe, current evidence suggests that they are almost certain to be less harmful than smoking tobacco.
“However, the devices may also help to re-normalise smoking. They are addictive because they contain nicotine, and promotional activity may increase their appeal to young people.
“The Scottish Government will consider what additional regulations are necessary to protect younger people, such as age restrictions on purchase.”