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£1.7m grant funds world-first e-cigarette trial to help homeless quit smoking 

Posted on 14 June 2021

Academics from the University of York are part of a major £1.7m research collaboration looking into whether e-cigarettes can help people experiencing homelessness quit smoking.

The research project, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), will be led by London South Bank University and University College London. The project is supported by research partners including the University of York, King's College London, Queen Mary University of London, University of East Anglia, Cardiff University, University of Stirling and the University of Edinburgh.

Building on York’s world-leading expertise in understanding the economic dimension of smoking and addictions, Steve Parrot from our Department of Health Sciences and his team will establish the costs and benefits of the approach.

Around 70 per cent of people who are homeless smoke tobacco - far higher than the UK average of 14.1 per cent. E-cigarettes are the most popular method of quitting smoking, with some studies suggesting they are more helpful aids than nicotine gum or patches and much less harmful than smoking tobacco. 

For people on low or no income, the price of a starter kit using refillable liquid is as high as £20 upwards. Researchers have set up this trial to find out whether supplying free e-cigarette starter kits at centres for people experiencing homelessness could help to combat this problem.

The nationwide study will be conducted in 32 centres across five UK regions: Scotland, Wales, London, South-East of England and East of England. Sixteen centres will be allocated to the ‘e-cigarette group’, while another 16 will be allocated to a ‘usual care group’. The full research trial will include 480 participants, with 240 in each group and 15 from each centre.

Steve Parrott, Reader in Health Economics said: “If the study demonstrates that providing free e-cigarette starter kits helps people to quit, then homeless centres could decide to adopt this approach in future. This will help reduce the impact of smoking-related diseases among the homeless. 

“We will establish how investments in this area might be justified by improving the health of homeless people and reducing the NHS costs of treating smoking-related illness.”

Project co-lead Lynne Dawkins, Professor of Nicotine and Tobacco Studies from the Centre for Addictive Behaviours Research at London South Bank University’s School of Applied Sciences, said: “In our earlier, smaller research trial, we found that e-cigarette starter kits worked well for participants. Staff at homeless centres were able to support the study and we collected the data we needed to conduct a full trial. 

“This grant award from the National Institute for Health Research will fund a much-needed larger trial, looking at whether supplying e-cigarettes to smokers attending homeless centres could help them to quit. This is the first study of its kind in the world to look at trialling this method.”

Professor Simon Gilbody, Director of the Mental Health and Addictions Research Group at the University of York added: “Smoking is the leading preventable cause of illness and death in the UK population. Smoking has killed more people than Covid during the pandemic, and will continue to do so even after the pandemic passes. 

“At York we want to ensure that marginalised groups benefit from innovative approaches to smoking cessation. This trial removes any financial barriers to using e-cigarettes for homeless people. Steve and his team will establish how this represents good value for money for the NHS. This is a world-leading team and York is proud to be part of this collaboration.”

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Find out more about the work of our Mental Health and Addictions Research Group