Electronic cigarettes containing nicotine will be trialled by University of Newcastle (UON) researchers in a Victorian pilot study aimed at helping drug and alcohol treatment patients to quit smoking.
Marking No Tobacco Day (31 May), behavioural scientist Professor Billie Bonevski says e-cigarettes are potentially a useful cessation aid akin to other nicotine-replacement therapies like patches or gum.
VicHealth has provided a $200,000 grant to Professor Bonevski’s team to conduct the research study at Melbourne’s Turning Point drug and alcohol treatment centre.
“Up to 90 per cent of people entering drug and alcohol treatment are tobacco smokers, which is five times greater than for the general adult population,” Professor Bonevski said. “People with substance dependence die 25 years earlier than those without, and the main causes of death are tobacco-related conditions.
“Smoking is prohibited while people are in a health program but what usually happens is that they reach for their tobacco cigarettes as soon they step outside the doors. In our trial we will be giving people e-cigarettes upon discharge so they have an alternative.”
Study participants will be followed up at 6 weeks and 12 weeks to see if e-cigarettes have helped them stay off tobacco.
Professor Bonevski says e-cigarettes with nicotine are readily available, popular overseas, and evidence suggests they help people to quit. In Australia, however, they are heavily restricted.
“They are controversial,” Professor Bonevski admits. “Some people believe that e-cigarettes will lead young people to take up tobacco cigarettes but there is no data from overseas to suggest that’s the case.
“A major international review found last year that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than tobacco equivalents. It’s the nicotine that keeps people addicted but it’s the tobacco and other toxic compounds that are causing cancer and other ill-effects. We really need more research to determine how safe and effective e-cigarettes are.”
In the trial, e-cigarettes will have a nicotine content as doctors are able to prescribe them for therapeutic purposes. The devices heat liquid nicotine, contained within a glycol or glycerine solution, to produce a steam-like vapor.
In the Hunter, other anti-tobacco programs are currently running in Indigenous health services and drug and alcohol treatment centres. Professor Bonevski is also conducting a nationally funded trial at John Hunter Hospital for people undergoing surgery.
With smoking impacting on recovery because of the risk of infections and slower wound healing, patients are provided with an iPad linking to an online cessation program, which they can continue when they go home.
* Professor Billie Bonevsk is a NHMRC and Brawn Career Development Fellow from the University of Newcastle, researching in conjunction with HMRI’s Public Health Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the Community.