Although marketed as an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes, the e-cigarette may actually aid smokers phase out nicotine entirely. An Italian study published today in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One found that among heavy smokers who traded their daily pack for nicotine cartridges, a majority quickly reduced their tobacco intake – and, by the end of the first three months, a significant percentage had quit smoking cigarettes entirely.

The study, which wasn’t originally intended as a cessation test, followed hundreds of smokers for an entire year – all of whom claimed that they were not planning on quitting in the near future. The subjects in the test group all received electronic cigarettes and cartridges of three different levels nicotine content.

It wasn’t until the end of the study that researchers spotted the apparent correlative between substituting tobacco with e-cigarettes and quitting nicotine entirely. For this reason, no control group was ever established; however, while it’s difficult to say with precision how many of the subjects would have attempted quit on their own during the year of the study, the rate of successful cessation among the individuals approached results achieved with medication.

By the end of the year, 13 percent of the group administered cartridges with the highest nicotine content had quit smoking cigarettes.

In addition to helping dozens of people give up tobacco, the study could have tremendous bearing on future smoking cessation methods. The study’s senior author, Dr. Riccardo Polosa of the University of Catania in Italy, noted that the real success of the study was the more or less serendipitous discovery of a new, remarkably effective control tool for individuals trying to quit smoking. The pernicious desire for tobacco cigarettes may be offset by the e-cigarette’s structural and visual resemblance to the real thing – and while it can still contain significant levels of nicotine, cartridges come in varying degrees of intensity, and can thus aid smokers in gradually decreasing their nicotine intake. In this regard, the e-cigarette resembles traditional cessation methods such as patches or chewing gum.

Speaking to Reuters, Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University of Public Health, commented on the study’s positive results by pointing to the behavioral link between smoking e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes. Since the appearance and usage of the e-cigarette mirrors that of its traditional tobacco counterpart, it does not disrupt the manual and visual habit patterns that naturally accompany smoking. For this reason, it has a new advantage over other methods – nicotine content notwithstanding.

However, Dr. Siegel cautioned that more research is needed before the e-cigarette could be considered a viable alternative to current quit-aids. Before the Italian study’s findings can be used in such regard, the long-term safety of e-cigarettes must be properly evaluated with similar rigor.

Source: Caponnetto, P, et al. EffiCiency and Safety of an eLectronic cigAreTte (ECLAT) as Tobacco Cigarettes Substitute: A Prospective 12-Month Randomized Control Design Study. PLOS One. 2013.