“It happens every New Year like clockwork,” says Oliver Kershaw, founder of the Electronic Cigarette Forum, an online site dedicated to e-cigarette culture. “We get an influx of new members – and they stay members.”
The reason? Seasoned smokers decide that, come January 1, they will have smoked their last, but may need a little help to keep it that way. “Whether switching to e-cigarettes is actually quitting is a technical point,” adds Mr Kershaw. “But at least you’re off tobacco, where much of the harm in cigarettes is.”
That cigarettes are harmful is no secret, hence the increasing numbers of people who, full of resolutions, attempt to quit them each year. According to Cancer Research UK, some 1.2 million try to quit smoking each New Year – roughly one in eight smokers – with January the most popular month to make an attempt.
In fact, despite inevitable cynicism regarding New Year’s resolutions, those who quit in January are more likely to stay off cigarettes than those who quit at some other point in the year.
Indeed, quitters are part of a longer-term trend. According to the NHS, the number of smokers using its services to try to quit has trebled over the last decade, with the success rate put at 49 per cent. This year’s Stoptober campaign was the latest to help the UK’s smokers quit successfully.
Similarly, in the United States 69 per cent of smokers want to quit completely, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, with 52 per cent having attempted to quit the previous year.
E-cigarettes are not regulated by the World Health Organization as quitting devices, nor are they marketed as such. “And are they effective at getting people off cigarettes entirely, both tobacco and nicotine?” asks Mr Kershaw. “Perhaps not.”
That said, a Boston University School of Public Health study last year found that 31 per cent of 222 respondents said they had not smoked tobacco since switching to e-cigarettes six months previously, against a typical abstinence rate of between 12 and 18 per cent for those using nicotine patches and gum.
The potential for e-cigarettes as a cessation device looks to be real if unproven until rigorous research is conducted. It could mean big business though; the nicotine replacement therapy industry in the UK alone is worth £150 million – and that’s for products that don’t work so well. According to a Harvard School of Public Health report, ex-smokers are twice as likely to relapse when relying on them.
According to Emma McCaffrey, a one-time 30-cigarettes-a-day woman and now head of marketing for e-cigarette online retailer Jac Vapour, they might prove an effective staging post between tobacco cigarettes and no cigarettes, in large part because they retain many of the appealing characteristics of the real thing – the nicotine supply, the hand-feel, the inhaling, the fulfilment of habit.
Those who quit in January are more likely to stay off cigarettes than those who quit at some other point in the year
“I tried everything – hypnotism, pills, classes, gum – and nothing worked for me. But e-cigarettes did because it meant not giving up the whole package,” she says. The latest technology in e-cigarettes even allows e-smokers to gradually reduce the nicotine intensity of their draw, so that in the end you are happily “just breathing in minty air and getting that satisfying sensation in the lungs”, as Ms McCaffrey puts it.
Certainly, the hardest aspect of quitting may be simply breaking the habit. According to Sean McGee, an executive coach and hypnotherapist specialising in stopping smoking: “The body is actually very effective at quickly removing nicotine from the system and it’s the nicotine, of course, that the brain craves. What remains is habit and that is often the strongest underlying element of cigarette addiction, which is why e-cigarettes might be a useful short-term stop-gap to quitting entirely.
“Quitting is essentially a psychological issue. Of course, giving up at New Year is an idea encoded into our DNA now. But without making a conscious decision to quit, you won’t. Stopping just because it’s January 1st doesn’t really work.”
Indeed, there are those within the e-cigarette community who are doubtful of their devices’ role in weaning smokers off cigarettes of all kinds. After all, notes Dave Dorn, founder of online channel Vapour Trails TV, that is to miss the crucial point – that e-cigarettes are first and foremost about providing massive harm reduction, but also leave much that was pleasurable to smokers intact.
“Most people who switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes do so to lower the risks of smoking tobacco, rather than with the intention of quitting. And the truth is they only smoked tobacco to get the nicotine, the risks of which are very slight,” he contends.
Although a lack of regulation, quality control and research means it remains unclear just what kind of health risk e-cigarettes may or may not pose, with some bodies, such as the US Food and Drug Administration, concerned that would-be quitters might actually be more likely to increase their nicotine intake by seeing e-cigarettes as quitting devices.
“I only tried twice to quit tobacco and failed miserably,” Mr Dorn adds. “But I did find that, as long as I had the nicotine, I didn’t need the tobacco. My take on it would be this – if you really just want to stop smoking all cigarettes, go cold turkey. It’s hard. But statistically it’s the most effective method in the long term.”