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October 5, 2017

Shifting to e-cigarettes could avoid up to 6.6 million premature deaths, study suggests

Daily Briefing

The number of premature deaths could fall if tobacco cigarette smokers switched to electronic cigarettes, according to a research paper published Monday in Tobacco Control.

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Research details

For the paper, which was funded by NIH, researchers used mathematical models to estimate how public health would be affected over a decade in two scenarios:

  • An optimistic scenario, in which the researchers assumed that more people ceased smoking tobacco cigarettes, largely by switching to e-cigarettes, and that the current scientific understanding on e-cigarettes' health risks is accurate; and
  • A pessimistic scenario, in which the researchers assumed fewer people stopping smoking tobacco cigarettes and the health risks of e-cigarettes are worse than the current scientific understanding.

The researchers compared the effects to a status quo scenario, which was developed based on smoking and cessation rates through 2012. As such, the status quo scenario did not incorporate recent tobacco control policy changes or the recent uptick in e-cigarette use.  


The researchers found that in the optimistic scenario—in which the prevalence of traditional cigarette use is reduced to a residual of 5 percent—6.6 million people lived up to 86.7 million additional years, compared with the status quo.  

According the research paper, even under the pessimistic scenario—in which the prevalence of cigarette use is reduced to a residual of 10 percent— 1.6 million people lived 20.8 million additional years, compared with the status quo scenario.


David Levy of Georgetown University Medical Center, who co-led research, said, "Old policies need to be supplemented with policies that encourage substituting e-cigarettes for the far more deadly cigarettes." Levy added, "In addition (to lives saved), there would be tremendous health benefits including reduced disease disability to smokers, reduced pain and suffering, and reduced exposure to secondhand smoke."

John Britton, director of Nottingham University's UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol, said, "The benefits are massive and demonstrate the importance of embracing, rather than rejecting, the potential of this new generation of nicotine products."

However, as the study's pessimistic scenario suggests, more research is needed to fully understand the health risks and potential relative benefits of e-cigarettes. According to Live Science, e-cigarettes do not contain tar and other toxins found in tobacco cigarettes, but they do contain nicotine, and at least one study has suggested they may increase the risk of heart disease (Kelland, Reuters, 10/2; Robitzski, LiveScience, 10/3; Levy et al., Tobacco Control, 10/2).

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