On Wednesday, the New England Journal of Medicine published a new study that reported the results of a one-year randomized, clinical trial in which e-cigarettes were compared to nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) to aid smoking cessation. The study was conducted in the UK, and both treatments were accompanied by behavioral counseling. The result: "The 1-year abstinence rate was 18.0% in the e-cigarette group, as compared with 9.9% in the nicotine-replacement group (relative risk, 1.83; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.30 to 2.58)."
This is the most definitive study yet on the effectiveness of electronic cigarettes for smoking cessation. It found that one-year smoking cessation rates with e-cigarettes were nearly twice those obtained using NRT. Although one must exercise caution in generalizing the results to the U.S., this evidence pretty much blows out of the water the claim being made by some anti-nicotine advocates that vaping actually inhibits smoking cessation.
A previous clinical trial conducted in New Zealand had found that e-cigarettes were as effective as NRT for smoking cessation, but that trial used first-generation e-cigarettes that are not thought to be as effective as products currently on the market.
This is great news for smokers, as it suggests that switching to vaping is another smoking cessation option that can be added to those already available. Certainly, for smokers who try to quit but fail with other therapies--like NRT--trying e-cigarettes is a strong and viable option. It may also be appropriate at this point for physicians to encourage smokers who want to quit and are open to trying e-cigarettes to make an attempt to switch to vaping even if they have not failed with other cessation approaches.
The Rest of the Story
So here is what the American Lung Association had to say in response to the study:
"The US Food and Drug Administration has not found any e-cigarette to be
safe and effective in helping smokers quit. We only support methods that are FDA approved and regulated. Switching to e-cigarettes does not mean quitting. Quitting means truly ending the
addiction to nicotine, which is very difficult."
In other words, the American Lung Association is saying that despite this clinical trial demonstrating that e-cigarettes are probably much more effective than NRT for smoking cessation, they would rather smokers continue smoking than make a quit attempt using electronic cigarettes.
The American Lung Association is stating that it does not "support" the use of e-cigarettes by smokers. This means that if a smoker is not willing to try NRT or a pill, then the American Lung Association would not recommend that they try quitting with e-cigarettes as an alternative.
Not only that, but according to this statement, the American Lung Association will never support the use of e-cigarettes because it will only do so once the FDA approves vaping as a cessation method, which will not and cannot happen. The FDA cannot approve e-cigarettes for smoking cessation because they are recreational products and not drugs. No manufacturer has ever applied to the FDA for approval of a vaping product as a smoking cessation method, and it is unlikely that will happen any time soon.
What could possibly explain why a public health organization that is supposed to be committed to improving lung health would actually discourage smokers from trying to quit using e-cigarettes, especially in the light of strong clinical trial evidence of their efficacy?
The only way I can reconcile this is to question whether subconsciously, the American Lung Association has so much hatred for smoking and smokers that they would actually prefer that a smoker continue to smoke and get sick from that smoking if they are not willing to use an FDA-approved pharmaceutical product. This is, after all, exactly what the organization is expressing. And although the reasoning behind this position is clearly not conscious, the only reasoning that could possibly explain it is some sort of underlying hatred of smokers and a desire to punish them if they don't try to quit "the right way" -- the "right way", of course, being defined by the American Lung Association.
It is important to note that the American Lung Association had a number of alternatives to its recommendation that smokers refrain from using e-cigarettes to quit. They could have recommended that NRT or pharmacotherapy remain a first-line approach, but that those smokers who fail to quit using NRT or pharmacotherapy may want to consider trying electronic cigarettes. They could have recommended that smokers switch to e-cigarettes and then try to wean themselves off the nicotine. Instead, the American Lung Association chose to make a blanket statement urging smokers not to try to quit using e-cigarettes.
I had thought that the tobacco control movement had reached its lowest point, but I never could have imagined that it would come to this: a national tobacco control organization has told smokers that they are better off continuing to smoke than trying to quit using an electronic cigarette. I don't think we can get any lower than this.