By Dr Colin Mendelsohn, tobacco treatment specialist, The Sydney Clinic*
Source: Australian Medical Association
* Dr Colin Mendelsohn has received payments for teaching, consulting and conference expenses from Pfizer Australia, GlaxoSmithKline Australia and Johnson and Johnson Pacific. He declares to have no commercial or other relationship with any tobacco or electronic cigarette companies.
The recent AMA statement on smoking takes a very negative position on electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). While there is still much to learn about e-cigarettes, there is growing evidence to support their effectiveness and safety for smoking cessation and harm reduction. Many experts feel that e-cigarettes are a potentially game-changing technology and could save millions of lives. 1
The AMA position statement does not reflect the current evidence in a number of areas. For example, there is currently no evidence for the AMA’s statement that ‘young people using e-cigarettes progress to tobacco smoking’ (the gateway effect). In the UK for example, regular use of e-cigarettes by children is rare and is confined almost entirely to current or past smokers. 2 Research in the US has found that increased access to e-cigarettes is associated with lower combustible cigarette use, rather than the opposite being true. 3
Understandable concerns are raised that increasing the visibility of a behaviour that resembles smoking may ‘normalise’ smoking and lead to higher rates of tobacco use. However, since e-cigarettes have been available, smoking rates have continued to fall. In the US, daily smoking by adolescents has dropped to a historic low of 3.2%. Adult smoking rates in the US and UK are also at record lows.
A recent independent review of the evidence commissioned by the UK Public Health agency, Public Health England (PHE), concluded that e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than smoking.4 This assessment includes an estimate for unknown long-term risks, based on the toxicological, chemical and clinical studies so far. Any risk from e-cigarettes must be compared to the risk from combustible tobacco, which is still the largest preventable cause of death and illness in Australia.
Three meta-analyses and a systematic review 5-8 suggest that e-cigarettes are effective for smoking cessation and reduction. The evidence indicates that using an e-cigarette in a quit attempt increases the probability of success on average by approximately 50% compared with using no aid or nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) purchased over-the-counter.
Most of the research to date has used now-obsolete models with low nicotine delivery. Newer devices deliver nicotine more effectively and have higher quit rates.
In the UK, e-cigarettes are now the most popular quitting method and are used in 40% of quit attempts. 9 In the UK alone there are currently over one million smokers who have quit smoking and are using e-cigarettes instead, with considerable health benefit.10 It has been estimated that each year in England many thousands of smokers quit using e-cigarettes and would not otherwise have quit if e-cigarettes had not been available. 11
Many organisations disagree with the AMA’s view that ‘currently there is no medical reason to start using an e-cigarette’. The Australian Association of Smoking Cessation Professionals, Public Health England and the UK National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training recommend e-cigarettes as a second-line intervention for smokers who are unable or unwilling to quit smoking using approved first-line therapies. In the healthcare setting there is empirical evidence that combining e-cigarettes with counselling and other pharmacotherapies such as varenicline and NRT can improve outcomes further.12
The regulatory agency in the UK (MHRA) recently licensed an e-cigarette which will be available on the National Health Service in 2016. It can be prescribed by doctors to help smokers quit and will be provided free.
In Australia, we need to have an evidence-based debate on the potential benefits and risks of e-cigarettes. Careful, proportionate regulation of e-cigarettes could give Australian smokers access to the benefits of vaping while minimising potential risks to public health. The popularity and widespread uptake of e-cigarettes creates the potential for large-scale improvements in public health.
The AMA has made a major contribution to reducing smoking rates in the past. It is well placed to take a leadership role in this debate to ensure that the potential benefits from e-cigarettes are realised.
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3. Pesko MF, Hughes JM, Faisal FS. The influence of electronic cigarette age purchasing restrictions on adolescent tobacco and marijuana use. Prev Med. 2016
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10. Use of electronic cigarettes (vapourisers) among adults in Great Britain. Action on Smoking and Health, UK., May 2015 Contract No.: Fact sheet 33. Available at http://ash.org.uk/information/facts-and-stats/fact-sheets (accessed June 2015)
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12. Hajek P, Corbin L, Ladmore D, Spearing E. Adding E-Cigarettes to Specialist Stop-Smoking Treatment: City of London Pilot Project. J Addict Res Ther. 2015;6 (3) http://dx.doi.org/10.4172/2155-6105.1000244