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Cigarette smokers who try to quit often end up vaping and smoking

Cessation treatment can aid such dual nicotine users

by Jim DrydenJuly 21, 2022

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Most of the 40 million Americans who smoke cigarettes say they want to quit, and some move to e-cigarettes as a step toward quitting. However, a growing number of such people become dual nicotine users: They smoke traditional cigarettes and vape e-cigarettes, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found.

Rather than discontinuing their addiction, many end up substantially increasing the amount of nicotine they consume. The good news, the researchers found, is that smoking-cessation treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that focus on nicotine replacement and counseling can help such dual users quit. In fact, such treatments seem to be effective in dual users as well as those who smoke traditional cigarettes exclusively.

The findings are available July 21 in the journal Thorax.

“We recommend FDA-approved treatment such as nicotine replacement, the drug varenicline and counseling for cigarette smokers,” said senior investigator Li-Shiun Chen, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry. “But we know that a growing number of people are using both cigarettes and e-cigarettes. The good news is that tobacco treatment still can help these people stop smoking and defeat their nicotine addition.”

In an average year, about 70% of those who smoke will make an attempt to quit. Another 20% say they want to smoke less. But only about 5% of those who don’t receive any treatment, such as nicotine replacement therapy and counseling, quit successfully.

In this review of de-identified electronic health records of more than 110,000 smokers who were seen in outpatient clinics at Barnes-Jewish Hospital between 2018 and 2020, Chen and her colleagues found that the number of e-cigarette users tripled. Some apparently started vaping as a potential step to quitting, but many seemed to get stuck. Instead of quitting, they started vaping while also continuing to smoke traditional cigarettes.

A relatively small but growing percentage of the smokers who were studied became dual users during the course of the study. Some 0.8% reported dual use in the study’s first year, but that number had grown to 2.3% when data collection had concluded. The authors noted that the actual number of dual users was likely higher.

The researchers found that about one in five (20.8%) of the dual users quit smoking within 12 months. That compared to a 16.8% quit rate among those who smoked only traditional cigarettes.

Treatment still seemed to be the key for dual users. When they received smoking-cessation treatment, almost one-third (29%) became nonsmokers 12 months later. About 17% of dual users who didn’t get treatment were able to quit.

First author Brendan T. Heiden, MD, a surgical resident and cardiothoracic surgery research fellow, said that although quit rates were higher among dual users, about two-thirds remained smokers a year later, even after treatment. That, combined with the fact that little is known about the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use, means that he and Chen don’t recommend that people who want to quit smoking should start vaping.

“The current scientific consensus is that using both cigarettes and e-cigarettes is bad for you,” Heiden said. “Although current guidelines do not recommend vaping for smoking cessation, we did find that among the growing number of people who use both of these products, traditional FDA-approved tobacco treatment — such as nicotine-replacement therapy and behavioral support therapy — can help them quit.”

Heiden BT, Baker TB, Smock N, Pham G, Chen J, Bierut LJ, Chen LS. Assessment of formal tobacco treatment and smoking cessation in dual users of cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Thorax, July 21, 2022.

This work is supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Cancer Institute; and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Grant numbers 5T32 HL007776-25, P30 CA091842-19S5, P50 CA244431, R01 DA038076, U19 CA203654. Additional funding from the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center Investment Program 5129-Barnard Trust and The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital Cancer Frontier Fund.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 1,700 faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is a leader in medical research, teaching and patient care, and currently is No. 4 in research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Jim retired from Washington University in 2023. While at WashU, Jim covered psychiatry and neuroscience, pain and opioid research, orthopedics, diabetes, obesity, nutrition and aging. He formerly worked at KWMU (now St. Louis Public Radio) as a reporter and anchor, and his stories from the Midwest also were broadcast on NPR. Jim hosted the School of Medicine's Show Me the Science podcast, which highlights the outstanding research, education and clinical care underway at the School of Medicine. He has a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.