A study has suggested that giving out free vapes to smokers in emergency departments and offering advice to them could help thousands more quit smoking each year.

Researchers said that the opportunistic approach could be helpful to people who are less likely to engage with stop smoking services.

The trial was conducted by Academics from the University of East Anglia (UEA) between January and August 2022 in six emergency departments in the UK.

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While visiting, some 484 patients who smoked daily were offered brief advice from a dedicated stop smoking adviser while awaiting discharge, along with an e-cigarette starter kit and referral to stop smoking services.

A second group of 488 patients was given written information on how to access stop smoking services but weren’t referred directly.

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Six months later, smoking habits were assessed with researchers offering members of the study a carbon monoxide test to confirm if they had given up cigarettes.

The research found that those referred to services and offered vape kits were 76% more likely to have given up compared to the other group with 7.2% quitting smoking at six months compared to 4.1%.

According to the study, they were also more likely to attempt to quit.

Self-reported seven-day abstinence from smoking at six months was a little over 23% in the group offered more advice compared to 13% in the group signposted to services.

Researchers said that providing smoking cessation support in emergency departments should be considered to “reach groups of the population that may not routinely engage with stop smoking services but have the most to gain from stopping smoking”.

Dr Ian Pope, of UEA’s Norwich Medical School, added: “Swapping to e-cigarettes could save thousands of lives.

“We believe that if this intervention was widely implemented it could result in more than 22,000 extra people quitting smoking each year.”

About 6.4 million adults in the UK were smokers in 2022, Office for National Statistics figures show.

According to the NHS, smoking costs England about £17 billion a year due to health service costs, loss of earnings, unemployment and early death.

Dr Pope said: “Attending the emergency department offers a valuable opportunity for people to be supported to quit smoking, which will improve their chances of recovery from whatever has brought them to hospital, and also prevent future illness.”

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Trial co-lead Professor Caitlin Notley, also of UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said vapes can “be an attractive option” to help people stop smoking.

“We know that they are much less harmful than smoking tobacco, and that they have been shown to help smokers quit,” she added.

“About half of all people who smoke will die prematurely, losing on average 10 years of life, and for every death caused by smoking, approximately 30 more people are suffering from a smoking-related disease.

“Smoking-related cancers, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases severely impact people’s quality of life as they get older and are a huge cost burden for the NHS.”

Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive of public health charity Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said the findings “are compelling” and should be “carefully considered by those in the NHS and local government who are planning services for smokers”.

“This type of low-cost offer of support combined with an e-cigarette and located where smokers are accessing existing care is exactly what we need to make rapid progress in our efforts to reduce smoking, particularly for disadvantaged groups,” she added.

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The findings of the study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), have been published in the Emergency Medicine Journal.

An NHS spokesperson said: “Smoking costs the NHS and the taxpayer billions every year in avoidable health and social care costs.

“Encouraging more people to stop smoking tobacco will support them to have healthier lives.”