E-Cigarettes Don’t Actually Help Smokers Quit, Say Scientists

Electronic cigarettes are a popular choice for those seeking to quit smoking and clearly, there are many people who do wish to leave this costly habit behind. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, around 17 out of every 100 adults in the United States smoked cigarettes, amounting to around 40 million smokers in total. Until the advent of e-cigarettes, most people wishing to quit opted for either behavioral therapy or nicotine patches/gum, which helps gradually reduce the amount of nicotine a smoker needs, until they no longer need to smoke at all. Of course, quitting is quite a challenge for most smokers, because sometimes, nicotine is not the problem; rather, the psychological dependency on cigarettes means that therapy can be useful when it comes to channelling stress in a positive manner.

E-cigarettes (battery powered devices that heat nicotine and other flavors to deliver a vapor which is inhaled) held new promise when they appeared on the market a few years back. Those seeking to quit are attracted by the possibility of purchasing low-nicotine refills for their e-cigs. The idea is to gradually purchase less and less nicotine until one is not smoking at all. Some quitters immediately replace nicotine with herbal or flavoured fillers (which boast attracted flavours such as strawberry cheesecake, peppermint or chocolate).

Research has now shown, however, that e-cigarettes are not actually helping smokers quit. Researchers at the University of California – San Francisco conducted a systemic review and meta analysis of existing research, finding that adults who ‘vape’ (i.e. use electronic cigarettes) are actually 28 per cent less likely to quit than those who do not use them. The researchers therefore recommended that those who are serious about quitting not turn to e-cigarettes, until there is evidence that this product can actually help them kick the habit.  They came to their conclusions after reviewing 38 studies assessing the link between e-cigarettes and smoking cessation. Their research accounted for many variables, including the level of addiction, demographics and previous attempts to quit.  They noted that e-cigarette vaping may be less dangerous than puffing on conventional cigarettes, but they will not help smokers quit.

The researchers noted that one important issue which needed to be addressed was the freedom with which e-cigarettes could be purchased and used. If the government were to include this product in smoke-free laws and voluntary smoke-free policies, it could decrease their reputation for being a smoking cessation aid.

Other researchers have also expressed their doubts regarding the safety of electronic cigarettes. According to a review published in Contemporary Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine, the health risks posed by e-cigarettes may be greater than originally thought. First of all, ‘vaping’ brings more nicotine directly into the bloodstream than nicotine patches. Secondly, e-cigarettes have been proven to bring the same unacceptably high levels of microscopic particles into the lungs as tobacco cigarettes, and they also bring a heavier load of toxic metals (such as lead, tin and chromium) into the lungs than conventional cigarettes do. Finally, many e-cigarette products are made in China, where a lack of control means that different brands can deliver nicotine at different levels. Therefore, experts suggest that those who wish to quit stick to tried-and-tested methods such as nicotine patches, which deliver less nicotine in reliable amounts.

Research also shows that exercises aimed at strengthening self-control, such as mindfulness meditation, can also help smokers control their desires. Neuro-imaging studies show that smokers have less activity in the parts of the brain associated with self-control. Therefore, scientists postulate that targeting these neurobiological circuits might be a more successful way to curb addiction. One study in particular showed that 10 meditation sessions (lasting half an hour per session) resulted in a 60 per cent reduction in smoking for over two weeks after the study period. The authors of the study noted that participants altered their smoking behaviour without actually being aware of it. Other research has shown that integrative mind-body control sessions led to reduced levels of stress hormone, cortisol. The findings are vital because stress is linked to a higher relapse rate. Additional studies have shown changes in the brain (greater connections between regions linked to self-control) after body-mind training.

Guest Article by: Gemma Billington (through Rob) – Email contact: gemma@arialblack.org

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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