Can e-cigarettes help people quit smoking?

A new study puts electronic cigarettes on the map as not only a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, but as a step toward stopping smoking altogether.

When Annie Strack’s best friend wanted to quit smoking and suggested trying electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, Strack decided to lend her support. After hearing that the cigarettes did not contain as many harmful chemicals or additives as tobacco cigarettes and could still give them the fix of smoking, the women each purchased a month’s supply of nicotine cartridges and decided to give it a shot.

After about 30 years of smoking more than a pack a day, Strack began smoking only the e-cigarettes.

“I found them to be extremely strong, and they have a terrible taste,” recalled Strack, a Pennsylvania-based artist who satisfied her nicotine cravings in just a few e-cigarette puffs a day. “I was able to taper off and then quit completely before my initial supply ran out. The terrible taste of the e-cigs was an added incentive to help me quit.”

Her friend was not able to kick the habit, but Strack said it worked wonders for her.

E-cigarettes, for the uninitiated, are battery-powered devices resembling cigarettes that combine chemicals, nicotine and vapor to create the look and feel of smoking.

Between 2009 and 2012, the number of American smokers dropped from 20.6 percent to 18 percent. Even as smoking is on the decline, more products are emerging to help smokers quit the habit—and a new study puts e-cigarettes on the map as a possible solution.

HOW THEY WORK

e-cigarette smoking how: how does e-cigarette workReuters: K.Pong, C. Inton

In a recent study, Italian researchers found that nearly 13 percent of smokers who switched to e-cigarettes did not intend to quit but wound up doing so by the end of the trial.

Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatry expert, is working on a trial of about 15 participants who had a desire to quit smoking, but had no set plan to stop.

“All I asked them to do was switch because I think they’re safer [than traditional cigarettes],” Ablow said.

Approximately 80 percent of the participants have stopped smoking, Ablow said.

Related: Healthy Living: Quit smoking

E-cigarettes are successful in smoking cessation because they are convenient, Ablow said. They also save smokers time and money compared to traditional cigarettes. He said a smoker with an e-cigarette is like an anxiety patient that keeps anti-anxiety medication on hand -- sometimes, just knowing it’s there is comfort enough.

“Without trying to create a smoking cessation device… they did. For a doctor, this is like a secret weapon,” Ablow said.

ARE E-CIGARETTES SAFER?

E-cigarettes contain potentially harmful substances, but are not typically as concentrated as traditional cigarettes, nor do they contain the additives.

“If an adult smoker were to switch from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigarettes, they would avoid approximately 6,000 carcinogenic substances,” said Dr. Paul M. Cinciripini, a smoking cessation expert at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Related: 6 common smoking triggers and how to fight them

Both Ablow and Cinciripini would like to see larger-scale trials. Ablow said it could save on health care spending.

“I think this is the most powerful way to switch off of tobacco that we have ever had,” Ablow added. “There is no better alternative.”

But Dr. Richard Thurer, professor at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer System at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said e-cigarettes perpetuate nicotine addiction and its risks. He cited a recent study in which e-cigarette users experienced airway resistance, which could have a dangerous effect...especially on those with coronary artery disease.

“E-cigarettes should not be viewed as a ‘healthier’ alternative,” Thurer warned.

THE REGULATORY PATH

The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation therapy, but it intends to propose extending its authority over them, according to FDA spokeswoman Jenny Haliski. She said more research is needed to assess their benefits and risks.

For ex-smokers like Strack, who credit e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation solution, they don’t need more proof.

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