This article appears in the Health Living fall 2017 magazine.

E-cigarettes are helping smokers kick the habit. The popularity of vaping is linked to a sharp rise in the number of adults quitting smoking, presenting a strong case that e-cigarettes are one more tool people can use if they want to snuff out their cigarettes for good, a new study finds.

The study, published in the journal BMJ, was based on the largest representative sample of e-cigarette users to date based on five population studies from 2001 to 2015. During that time the smoking cessation rate increased for the first time in 15 years.

The annual rate of smoking cessation has hovered around 4.6 percent for years, but in the 2014-15 Current Population Survey-Tobacco Use Supplement survey the rate increased to 5.6. The 1.1 percentage point increase may seem small, but it is statistically significant.

“That’s 350,000 people who quit (in a 12-month period). That’s a big number,” said Dr. Shu-Hong Zhu, University of California San Diego professor of Family Medicine and Public Health and director of the Center for Research and Intervention in Tobacco Control.

The scientific community is divided on the question of whether e-cigarettes can help wean smokers from their addiction. This research “is very encouraging” that it can, Zhu said.

About the study

Earlier studies have looked at e-cigarettes as a cessation tool, and some have concluded that e-cigarette use did not aid smokers in quitting. A key finding in this analysis, said Zhu, is that in 2014-15 more people using e-cigarettes were doing so intensively. More than 70 percent of people who had successfully quit smoking recently were still using e-cigarettes daily, which may help prevent relapse, researchers said.

“Our analysis of the population survey data indicated that smokers who also used e-cigarettes were more likely to attempt to quit smoking, and more likely to succeed. Use of e-cigarettes was associated both with a higher quit rate for individuals as well as at the population level, driving an increase in the overall number of people quitting,” Zhu said.

“The cessation rate among those who did not use e-cigarettes remained the same compared to previous years. These data suggest that e-cigarettes play the role of a cessation tool,” he said.

Safety still a question

The study has to be taken in context.

“We don’t know how safe e-cigarettes are, but we know they are much less dangerous” than traditional cigarettes, Zhu said. “It’s not really surprising to people who already use e-cigarettes to stop smoking. They know it helps, but now there’s proof for the scientific community,” he said.

E-cigarettes are considered less dangerous because of how the burning process in cigarettes affects the body. Tobacco smokers ingest carbon monoxide, tar and other harmful carcinogens, which negatively impact the heart, lungs and other parts of the body, Zhu said.

“E-cigarettes are one part of the toolbox for people who want to quit,” Zhu said. They can be especially useful for people who have tried and failed to quite with other methods, he said.

This study did not investigate whether the use of e-cigarettes leads people to start smoking nor address the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use.