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The study found that people who wanted to quit smoking were about 60 percent more likely to succeed if they used e-cigarettes compared to would-be quitters who tried an anti-smoking nicotine patch or gum.
"It appears, at least for some people, e-cigarettes are a viable method of quitting that looks comparable to, if not better than, traditional nicotine replacement therapy," said Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, who had no part in the study.
The same 60 percent statistic held when the study authors compared the use of e-cigarettes as a quit-smoking aid to people who tried to quit using willpower alone.
Smoking is a notoriously tough habit to beat, however, and quit rates were still low: Only one-fifth of people who tried e-cigarettes as a stop-smoking aid succeeded in quitting long-term, the study found.
The study is published May 21 in the journal Addiction.
The vapor provided by electronic cigarettes contains nicotine but not tobacco smoke, thereby reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms in smokers, according to background information in the report. And use of e-cigarettes has risen significantly in recent years: Only 2 percent of U.S. smokers reported using them in 2010, but that number jumped to over 30 percent in 2012, the researchers said.
Results of other studies on e-cigarettes' potential as a smoking-cessation aid have been mixed, however.
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in March found that electronic cigarettes do not help people curb or quit smoking.
"When used by a broad sample of smokers under 'real world' conditions, e-cigarette use did not significantly increase the chances of successfully quitting cigarette smoking," concluded that study's lead researcher, Dr. Pamela Ling, an associate professor at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at University of California, San Francisco.
However, Siegel said the new study is different because the researchers didn't just look at people who used e-cigarettes, but at those who used them specifically to quit.
"They actually identified smokers who were trying to quit using e-cigarettes, whereas in the other study they just interviewed smokers in general," he said. "You really want to know when people are using them in an effort to quit and how successful they are."
Recent reports have found that some e-cigarettes may contain harmful byproducts that might increase the risk for cancer. However, toxicity tests indicate they are safer than regular cigarettes, according to prior studies.
Siegel believes the benefits of giving up cigarettes outweigh the risks posed by e-cigarettes.
"If you are able to quit without e-cigarettes at all, that's the ideal situation, but unfortunately what the data are showing is that people who are trying to quit without any aid may not be as successful," he said.
"In the long run, I think you are better off quitting than not quitting, even if e-cigarettes are the way that you quit," Siegel added. "Then we can worry about how to get people off e-cigarettes." (Nicotine is the addictive component of cigarettes.)
Dr. Norman Edelman, a senior medical advisor to the American Lung Association, isn't as quick to recommend e-cigarettes as a quit-smoking tool.
"The study is suggestive, but you can't say it's conclusive," he said.
"The American Lung Association takes the position that no agent should be thought of as safe and effective for smoking cessation unless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves it for that purpose," Edelman said.
The real test of whether e-cigarettes help people quit will come when the manufacturers have the confidence to submit them to the FDA for review and approval as aids to quitting, Edelman said.
Last month, the FDA proposed long-awaited regulations governing the electronic cigarette industry. The new rules would give the FDA authority to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, placing them under the same requirements as cigarettes.
For the new study, a team led by Jamie Brown, a senior research fellow at University College London's Health Behavior Research Center, surveyed over 5,850 smokers who had tried to quit without the use of prescription drugs or professional help.
Among these smokers, 20 percent who tried quitting by using e-cigarettes reported they succeeded, the researchers noted.
Still, according to Robert West, senior author of the study, use of proven stop-smoking programs practically triple the likelihood of quitting compared to winging it alone or using over-the-counter products.
The study authors reported no funding from e-cigarette makers.
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