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New research on electronic cigarettes to help smokers with mental health problems quit and reduce harm

Posted on 19 November 2020

Academics from the University of York and University College London are to lead a major new trial, funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research, to establish whether integrating the offer of a vaping starter kit to mental health patients who smoke helps increase the number who quit successfully. The cost-effectiveness of this approach will also be analysed.

Smoking rates among people with mental illness on average more than double those of the general population (~14 per cent) but can reach proportions of around 70 per cent in some sub groups, for example people with schizophrenia. 

The new research will be led by Elena Ratschen, Associate Professor in Health Sciences at the University of York and Lion Shahab, Professor of Health Psychology at University College London. 

Public health priority

Although smoking rates are declining in the UK, no change has been seen in people with mental illness. Developing and testing better strategies to support this population to quit has been identified as a public health priority and forms part of the NHS Long Term Plan.

Dr Ratschen said: “There is an urgent need to address smoking-related inequalities in mental health. People with mental illness lose up to 20 years of life expectancy, mainly to consequences of smoking including cancer. Until very recently, smoking has remained deeply embedded within the culture of mental health care and treatment settings, where it was commonly accepted as a coping mechanism for patients. We now know that smoking worsens mental illness symptoms and may even be linked to their development.

“People with mental illness are just as motivated to quit as those without. However, giving up smoking can be difficult because of limited access to support and high dependence.’’

According to Public Health England, vaping products are significantly less harmful than smoking. They have become the most popular stop smoking aid in England, with up to 57,000 people using them to quit smoking each year.

Professor Shahab said: “There is growing evidence that e-cigarettes can help smokers kick the habit of a lifetime and that these devices may be particularly helpful for more disadvantaged smokers, including those with common mental health conditions.”

Starter kit

Around 740 people who are currently receiving outpatient treatment for mental illness will be recruited to take part in the four-year trial. As well as receiving standard stop smoking support, they will be offered a starter kit including a vaping device, e-liquid and brief e-cigarette related advice.  

The research team includes members who have experience with, or care for, people with mental illness and will enable people who smoke and use mental health services to participate in a world-leading research programme.