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Two new online studies try to clear the air around e-cigarettes

February 09, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times
  • If e-cigarettes take off, manufacturers hope, they'll turn smokers away from the real thing.
If e-cigarettes take off, manufacturers hope, they'll turn smokers… (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg )

Two studies published online Tuesday by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine tell consumers more -- a little bit more, anyway -- about electronic cigarettes and their potential to help smokers cut back or quit the habit.

Electronic cigarettes are built to look like real cigarettes.  They're made of plastic, run on batteries and allow users to inhale nicotine in a vapor form.  Unlike nicotine delivery products such as gum, lozenges or patches, or smoking cessation medications like Chantix, they allow users to hold something that feels like a cigarette and mimic the behavior of smoking.
Some think this might make them a more effective smoking cessation tool, but their effectiveness is not yet known.

For the first paper, Johns Hopkins public health doctoral candidate John Ayers and co-authors used a free and publicly available tool called Google Insights for Search to monitor English-language Web searches for e-cigarettes.  The team noted how many times people searched for e-cigarettes in the U.S., Britain, Canada and Australia from January 2008 to September 2010, and also monitored online shopping searches.  

They compared searches for e-cigarettes with searches for nicotine gum and other cessation products.  Searches for e-cigarettes increased sharply between July 2008 and February 2010, the team reported.  Online shopping searches followed a similar pattern.  E-cigarettes "are by far the most popular smoking alternatives and cessation products on the market," said Ayers in a press release.

The problem is, no one knows if they're effective.  In another study release by the journal, Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel and colleagues sent out online surveys to 5,000 people who had made a first-time purchase of Blu e-cigarettes during a two-week period in 2009.   

They asked respondents about their smoking habits and nicotine use after buying the e-cigarettes. Most of the respondents were men. More than 80% had smoked for six or more years.  Nearly two-thirds had tried to quit three or more times.  

Sixty-seven percent said they had reduced the number of cigarettes they smoked six months after trying e-cigarettes; 49% said they had quit for an unspecified amount of time and 31% were not smoking at all at the six-month point.  

The authors wrote that the results suggested that "if proven safe, e-cigarettes may be a potentially important tool for harm reduction" and that they're "worthy of further investigation."

But the findings weren't definitive, they cautioned.  All of the data were self-reported, and they had only a 4.5% response rate.

The Food and Drug Administration announced last September that it would regulate e-cigarettes as drugs.

Expect more studies to follow.

RELATED: The Healthy Skeptic on electronic cigarettes.

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