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E-cigarettes are nearly twice as effective as nicotine gum or patches at helping people quit smoking, a landmark trial found.

The NHS-funded study identified ‘vaping’ as six times more effective than trying to kick the habit alone.

Officials last night called for health professionals to start recommending the devices far more widely.

They said staff at stop-smoking services have been too reluctant to endorse e-cigarettes, because they have been cautious about the evidence behind them.

Martin Dockrell, who is in charge of tobacco control at Public Health England, said: ‘This landmark research shows that switching to an e-cigarette can be one of the most effective ways to quit smoking, especially when combined with face-to-face support.

‘All stop smoking services should welcome smokers who want to quit with the help of an e-cigarette.’

Other experts, however, were far more critical.

Doctors from the US – where experts have tended to be more cautious about e-cigarettes than those in Britain – pointed out that even with e-cigarettes 82 per cent of people failed to give up smoking.

And of those who did kick the habit, 80 per cent were left hooked on e-cigarettes instead, which raises concerns about the impact of long-term vaping.

The research of 900 smokers, led by experts at Queen Mary University of London, found 18 per cent of people stopped smoking a year after taking up e-cigarettes.

Only 10 per cent of those who tried nicotine patches, gum or sprays managed to quit – along with just three per cent of those who attempted to give up smoking unaided.

Professor Peter Hajek said: ‘This is the first trial to test the efficacy of modern e-cigarettes in helping smokers quit.

‘E-cigarettes were almost twice as effective as the “gold standard” combination of nicotine replacement products.

‘Although a large number of smokers report that they have quit smoking successfully with the help of e-cigarettes, health professionals have been reluctant to recommend their use because of the lack of clear evidence from randomised controlled trials.

‘This is now likely to change.’

All participants in the study, which was funded by the NHS National Institute for Health Research and published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine, also had weekly face-to-face support.

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Dunja Przulj said: ‘The UK specialist stop smoking services will now be more likely to include e-cigarettes among their treatment options, and health professionals will feel more comfortable in recommending e-cigarettes as a stop-smoking intervention.

‘This may ultimately further accelerate the reduction in smoking and in smoking related diseases.’ Other British researchers also backed the findings.

Professor Robert West of University College London, said: ‘This study is of huge significance.

‘It provides the clearest indication yet that e-cigarettes are probably more effective than products such as nicotine gum and patches.’

But he added: ‘Given that ecigs may cause some harm when used over many years I would encourage users to think of them as a stop-gap, but they are far better than smoking – ex-smokers should not stop using them if they are worried they may go back to cigarettes.’

E-cigarettes form the core of Public Health England’s stop-smoking strategy, with TV adverts, health campaigns, and researchers championing the technology.

But critics have repeatedly warned that the UK is ‘way out of step with the rest of the world’ in its approach to the devices.

The World Health Organization is concerned about cancer-causing chemicals in the devices and the EU believes e-cigarettes may act as a ‘gateway’ to tobacco.

Earlier this month the head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, said he was so concerned about teenage use of the devices that he is considering the radical step of banning them completely.

Last night US experts at Boston University reiterated their caution – and said smokers should only be given e-cigarettes if they have failed to quit using other methods.

Writing in an editorial to accompany the New England Journal of Medicine research, Boston professors Belinda Borrelli and George O’Connor said: ‘While e-cigarettes are “safer” than traditional cigarettes, they are not without risks.

‘Evidence of effectiveness must be balanced against the short-term and long-term safety of e-cigarettes.

‘E-cigarette vapour contains many toxins and exerts potentially adverse biologic effects on human cells… although toxin levels and biologic effects are generally lower than those of tobacco smoke.’

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