A Study Asks, Could E-Cigarettes Really Help Smokers Quit?

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REUTERS/Simon Newman

Electronic cigarettes, the smokeless battery-operated nicotine-delivery devices that look like real cigarettes, are becoming increasingly available online, with manufacturers marketing them largely to people who are trying to quit smoking. Question is: do they work?

At least one previous study said no, finding that e-cigarettes don’t deliver much nicotine and don’t reduce smokers’ cravings.

Now two new studies of e-cigs, published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, attempt to shed a little more light on the issue. The first study compared Internet searches for, and purchases of, e-cigarettes and other quit-smoking products like nicotine gum from Jan. 2008 to Sept. 2010 in the U.S., Britain, Canada and Australia. The authors didn’t look at the effectiveness of e-cigs, but did find that they were the most popular smoking alternatives or cessation products on the online market, according to a statement.

In another study, researchers at Boston University sent online surveys to 5,000 people who had bought Blu e-cigarettes for the first time during a two-week period in 2009. The number of respondents was small — just 222. They were mostly male and long-time smokers who had tried and failed to quit several times before. Among them, 67% said they had cut down on the number of cigarettes they smoked six months after buying Blu, and 31% had quit at the six-month mark; 49% also said they’d stopped smoking for some unspecified amount of time.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that smokers who were more successful at cutting down or quitting were more likely to respond to the survey, which would have biased the results.

“Neither of these two studies provides scientific evidence that e-cigarettes are effective in helping people to quit,” said John Pierce, a professor of cancer prevention at the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego, in a statement. “It’s not clear to me that e-cigarettes aren’t harmful in some way. It’s not clear to the FDA, either.”

In Sept. 2010, the FDA announced it would start regulating e-cigarettes as drug-delivery devices and cited five distributors for “violations of good manufacturing practices, making unsubstantiated drug claims, and using the devices as delivery mechanisms for active pharmaceutical ingredients,” according to an agency press release.

In January, the FDA tried unsuccessfully to block e-cigarette importation. Several U.S. states are now moving to ban or restrict their use.