Electronic cigarettes (ECs) are handheld electronic vaping devices which produce an aerosol by heating an e-liquid. Some people who smoke use ECs to stop or reduce smoking, although some organizations, advocacy groups and policymakers have discouraged this, citing lack of evidence of efficacy and safety. People who smoke, healthcare providers and regulators want to know if ECs can help people quit smoking, and if they are safe to use for this purpose. This is a review update conducted as part of a living systematic review.
To examine the effectiveness, tolerability, and safety of using electronic cigarettes (ECs) to help people who smoke tobacco achieve long-term smoking abstinence.
We searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group's Specialized Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, Embase, and PsycINFO to 1 July 2022, and reference-checked and contacted study authors. SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and randomized cross-over trials, in which people who smoke were randomized to an EC or control condition. We also included uncontrolled intervention studies in which all participants received an EC intervention. Studies had to report abstinence from cigarettes at six months or longer or data on safety markers at one week or longer, or both.
Data collection and analysis:
We followed standard Cochrane methods for screening and data extraction. Our primary outcome measures were abstinence from smoking after at least six months follow-up, adverse events (AEs), and serious adverse events (SAEs). Secondary outcomes included the proportion of people still using study product (EC or pharmacotherapy) at six or more months after randomization or starting EC use, changes in carbon monoxide (CO), blood pressure (BP), heart rate, arterial oxygen saturation, lung function, and levels of carcinogens or toxicants, or both. We used a fixed-effect Mantel-Haenszel model to calculate risk ratios (RRs) with a 95% confidence interval (CI) for dichotomous outcomes. For continuous outcomes, we calculated mean differences. Where appropriate, we pooled data in meta-analyses.
We included 78 completed studies, representing 22,052 participants, of which 40 were RCTs. Seventeen of the 78 included studies were new to this review update. Of the included studies, we rated ten (all but one contributing to our main comparisons) at low risk of bias overall, 50 at high risk overall (including all non-randomized studies), and the remainder at unclear risk. There was high certainty that quit rates were higher in people randomized to nicotine EC than in those randomized to nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) (RR 1.63, 95% CI 1.30 to 2.04; I2 = 10%; 6 studies, 2378 participants). In absolute terms, this might translate to an additional four quitters per 100 (95% CI 2 to 6). There was moderate-certainty evidence (limited by imprecision) that the rate of occurrence of AEs was similar between groups (RR 1.02, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.19; I2 = 0%; 4 studies, 1702 participants). SAEs were rare, but there was insufficient evidence to determine whether rates differed between groups due to very serious imprecision (RR 1.12, 95% CI 0.82 to 1.52; I2 = 34%; 5 studies, 2411 participants). There was moderate-certainty evidence, limited by imprecision, that quit rates were higher in people randomized to nicotine EC than to non-nicotine EC (RR 1.94, 95% CI 1.21 to 3.13; I2 = 0%; 5 studies, 1447 participants). In absolute terms, this might lead to an additional seven quitters per 100 (95% CI 2 to 16). There was moderate-certainty evidence of no difference in the rate of AEs between these groups (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.91 to 1.11; I2 = 0%; 5 studies, 1840 participants). There was insufficient evidence to determine whether rates of SAEs differed between groups, due to very serious imprecision (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.56 to 1.79; I2 = 0%; 8 studies, 1272 participants). Compared to behavioural support only/no support, quit rates were higher for participants randomized to nicotine EC (RR 2.66, 95% CI 1.52 to 4.65; I2 = 0%; 7 studies, 3126 participants). In absolute terms, this represents an additional two quitters per 100 (95% CI 1 to 3). However, this finding was of very low certainty, due to issues with imprecision and risk of bias. There was some evidence that (non-serious) AEs were more common in people randomized to nicotine EC (RR 1.22, 95% CI 1.12 to 1.32; I2 = 41%, low certainty; 4 studies, 765 participants) and, again, insufficient evidence to determine whether rates of SAEs differed between groups (RR 1.03, 95% CI 0.54 to 1.97; I2 = 38%; 9 studies, 1993 participants). Data from non-randomized studies were consistent with RCT data. The most commonly reported AEs were throat/mouth irritation, headache, cough, and nausea, which tended to dissipate with continued EC use. Very few studies reported data on other outcomes or comparisons, hence evidence for these is limited, with CIs often encompassing clinically significant harm and benefit.
There is high-certainty evidence that ECs with nicotine increase quit rates compared to NRT and moderate-certainty evidence that they increase quit rates compared to ECs without nicotine. Evidence comparing nicotine EC with usual care/no treatment also suggests benefit, but is less certain. More studies are needed to confirm the effect size. Confidence intervals were for the most part wide for data on AEs, SAEs and other safety markers, with no difference in AEs between nicotine and non-nicotine ECs nor between nicotine ECs and NRT. Overall incidence of SAEs was low across all study arms. We did not detect evidence of serious harm from nicotine EC, but longest follow-up was two years and the number of studies was small. The main limitation of the evidence base remains imprecision due to the small number of RCTs, often with low event rates, but further RCTs are underway. To ensure the review continues to provide up-to-date information to decision-makers, this review is a living systematic review. We run searches monthly, with the review updated when relevant new evidence becomes available. Please refer to the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews for the review's current status.