The estimation, based on survey responses, shows how little we understand vaping as a smoking cessation tool.
An estimated 6.1 million Europeans have quit smoking by switching to vaping, according to a paper published online this week in Addiction.
Though only an estimation, the study highlights the need for more data on how useful vaping may be as a stop smoking aid. It's especially crucial as new e-cigarette regulations roll out across the EU and the US—rules that some say threaten the entire e-cig industry.
In the paper, researchers did a close analysis of data collected back in 2014 and released last year through the European Commission. It found that only 2 percent of respondents are currently using e-cigarettes, and just 14 percent had been able to quit smoking completely by switching to vaping. However, this included any smoker who had even tried one puff of an e-cigarette (not exactly a sustained effort to quit). In the Addiction paper, the researchers broke down the numbers a little further and found a much more impressive success rate.
When you only look at respondents who were currently using e-cigarettes, 35 percent were former smokers who had successfully quit. And there was a correlation with higher use: Of respondents who vaped daily, 30.6 percent had quit smoking, compared to 8.9 percent of respondents who said they vaped once a week or less.
To put this in perspective, the researchers then extrapolated the representation to the total EU population and estimated 6.1 million people had quit through vaping, and 9.2 million had been able to cut back on smoking by becoming dual users.
Of course, by that same logic, millions of Europeans have tried and failed to quit using e-cigarettes as well, but that's also true of all smoking cessation tools. Prescription drugs—our most effective stop smoking aid—are about 23 percent effective, while treatments like nicotine patches and gum only work 6 percent of the time.
In the fall, Pfizer representatives told me its stop-smoking drug Chantix had been prescribed to 22 million unique patients around the world since it came on the market. With a 23 percent effectiveness rate, that means an estimated 5 million people will have stopped smoking by taking the drug, putting vaping on par with some of our best smoking cessation technology.
Unfortunately for the vaping evangelists, this kind of analysis has its limitations. The 6 million people is an extrapolated estimate. The survey only interviewed 27,801 people and since it was interview style, it's all self-reported. As the analysis authors note, "Although surveys and studies of users have shown that many smokers succeed in quitting smoking with the use of e-cigarettes, randomized controlled trials have shown modest effects and the efficacy of e-cigarettes in smoking cessation and reduction has been questioned."
It's far from irrefutable proof of some magic, stop-smoking effects of vaping, but the authors argue these indicators show further research needs to be done, and perhaps we need to approach it in a different way than we have in the past.
"It is not reasonable to expect experimentation or occasional use to be substantially effective in smoking cessation," the authors wrote. "Other surveys fail to differentiate between regular and occasional use or experimentation, which results in overestimation of the prevalence of use and underestimation of their efficacy in smoking substitution."