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30 Sep 2014

Claims that electronic cigarettes can help people quit tobacco have been undermined by the findings of a US study into the smoking habits of cancer patients.

The study of 1074 New York cancer patients who smoked found those using e-cigarettes were just as likely to be smoking after a year as those who did not use them, and that seven-day abstinence rates were virtually the same for both groups.

Health authorities and experts are still grappling with the issue of whether e-cigarettes pose a threat or are a benefit in the fight to cut down rates of smoking.

Concern about the technology - which uses battery power to vaporise a solution that typically includes nicotine, which users then inhale – is mounting as its use spreads at a massive rate.

Recent US research identified more than 500 brands offering more than 7760 flavours, with an extra 10 brands being added every month, and e-cigarette use among the New York cancer patients involved in the latest study tripled between 2012 and 2013.

In June, public health experts worldwide made a joint appeal to the World Health Organisation to ignore tobacco industry claims about e-cigarettes and instead focus on the evidence in assessing their health implications.

Leading Australian public health advocates Professor Stephen Leeder, Professor Alan Lopez, Professor Ian Olver, Professor Mike Daube, Professor Simon Chapman and Associate Professor Freddy Sitas were among 129 international public health physicians and campaigners who wrote to WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan in support of the organisation’s evidence-based approach to electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS).

Their call has come amid mounting international concern about the rapid, and largely unregulated, growth in e-cigarettes, which are often being spruiked as a safe alternative to tobacco products and an aid in kicking the smoking habit.

But those claims have been dented by the New York study.

Lead author Dr Jamie Ostroff, of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said all cancer patients were counselled to quit smoking, and her study looked at the efficacy of e-cigarettes in supporting that.

The rising use of e-cigarettes has raised many questions among patients and the health care providers. Including whether e-cigarette use helps or hinders quitting efforts, Dr Ostroff said.

She admitted that the small and limited nature of her study meant the findings were far from conclusive.

“Controlled research I needed to evaluate the potential harms and benefits of e-cigarettes as a potential cessation approach for cancer patients,” Dr Ostroff said, and advised that in the meantime all smokers should be advised to quit and informed about the “potential risks and lack of known benefits” of long-term e-cigarette use.

The WHO has said it is reviewing evidence around the use of e-cigarettes, and is working with national regulatory bodies to look at regulatory options, as well as with toxicology experts to understand more about the impact they may have on health.

In Australia, it is illegal to sell e-cigarette liquids that contain nicotine.

Adrian Rollins


Published: 30 Sep 2014