E-cigarettes did not help people quit smoking, a small study found, but the researchers said more studies are needed to determine if the devices could play some role in smoking cessation.
The investigation included more than 1,300 adult smokers who had been hospitalized and said they intended to quit smoking after being discharged from the hospital.
They received either usual care -- support services and recommendations on medications to help them quit smoking -- or an intervention that gave them their choice of medications to help them quit smoking and automated phone calls providing advice and encouragement.
Both groups were told they could use e-cigarettes if they wanted and more than one-quarter of them used the electronic devices in the three months after leaving the hospital. E-cigarette use was higher in the usual care group than in the intervention group.
Nearly 70 percent of study participants who used e-cigarettes said they did so to help them quit smoking, and frequency of use ranged from about once a week to once a day.
After six months, patients who used e-cigarettes were less likely to have quit smoking than those who didn't use the devices, according to the study.
But the researchers noted that the study doesn't prove definitively that e-cigarettes don't help people quit smoking.
"Study participants who used e-cigarettes generally used them infrequently and not every day, a pattern that may not be an effective way to use them for quitting smoking," said study leader Dr. Nancy Rigotti. She directs the Tobacco Research and Treatment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"It does not prove that e-cigarettes could not be of benefit if a smoker switches completely from tobacco cigarettes and uses them [e-cigarettes] regularly, in the same way that FDA-approved nicotine replacement products are intended to be used," Rigotti said in a hospital news release.
"These results indicate the urgent need for randomized, controlled trials to investigate whether e-cigarettes can help smokers to quit, which have been difficult to do in the U.S. because of regulatory challenges," she said.
"In the meantime, I would tell smokers who want to quit or cut down to use one of the FDA-approved smoking cessation medications, which are known to be safe and effective, as a first choice," Rigotti said.
"If they do choose to try e-cigarettes, they should switch completely from tobacco cigarettes and use e-cigarettes daily, something the American Cancer Society has recently recommended," Rigotti added.
The findings were published March 26 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The American Cancer Society offers a guide to quitting smoking.
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