The first ever trial to compare e-cigarettes with nicotine patches has found that both methods result in comparable success in helping smokers quit their habit.

The study, presented at the European Respiratory Society congress in Barcelona, involved 657 smokers in New Zealand and was led by Chris Bullen at the University of Auckland. Participants were divided into three groups: 292 received a supply of the country’s best-selling e-cigarette, called Elusion, each of which contained 16mg nicotine. The same number got nicotine patches and 73 received placebo e-cigarettes which contained no nicotine.

Over 13 weeks of using the cessation aids, and after three months further follow-up, around one in 20 had managed to remain completely abstinent from smoking. While the proportion of participants who successfully quit was highest in the e-cigarettes group (7.3% compared to 5.8% for patches and 4.1% placebo), these differences were not statistically significant. Among those who had not managed to quit after six months, cigarette consumption was markedly reduced in the nicotine e-cigarettes group, compared to the patches and placebo groups; 57% had reduced their daily consumption of cigarettes by at least half after six months, compared to 41% of the patches group.

 In both of the nicotine and placebo e-cigarettes groups, a third of participants were still using the devices after six months, compared to under one in ten (8%) of those in the patches group. When asked whether they would recommend their allocated product to a friend one month after finishing the course, around nine out of 10 participants in both the e-cigarettes and the placebo groups said they would, compared to 56% in the patches group.

Prof Bullen said the study “establishes a critical benchmark for e-cigarette performance…but there is still so much that is unknown about the effectiveness and long-term effects” of these products. He added that given the increasing popularity of these devices in many countries, “and the accompanying regulatory uncertainty and inconsistency, larger, longer-term trials are urgently needed to establish whether these devices might be able to fulfil their potential as effective and popular smoking cessation aids”.

Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are currently evaluating the safety of e-cigarettes, which are not licensed for medicinal use and the lack of testing on the products has caused concern that they may be harmful.