A university is seeking smokers to take part in the first study into the long-term safety of switching to e-cigarettes.
Researchers at St George’s, University of London, want to assess the impact on the risk of cancer, brain activity, and quality of life indicators such as sleep.
The pilot study, which is looking for 100 volunteers, is part of the EU’s £3.4 million Smoke Free Brain project.
It is being carried out with Public Health England and its results could help determine whether e-cigarettes are offered on the NHS as a smoking cessation aid.
E-cigarettes have been available for a decade and are used by 2.8 million UK adults.
A report last year from the Royal College of Physicians said the long-term risks of vaping were unlikely to exceed five per cent of those associated with smoking, and called for e-cigarettes to be promoted as a tobacco substitute.
However, PHE says “reasonable concerns” remain about the long-term health risks and public health impacts, with “variable” research and “poorly sourced scare stories” in the media.
There is no e-cigarette product available that can be prescribed on the NHS.
The study will require participants to attend a clinic at St George’s hospital, in Tooting, six times over a month to give blood, saliva and urine samples and undergo electroencephalography, a non-invasive brain monitoring tool.
Those taking part will be “heavy smokers” — more than 10 a day for at least six months. The study aims to find ways to help people quit for good.
Dr Alexis Bailey, senior lecturer in neuropharmacology at St George’s university, said: “We are looking for smokers who want to quit smoking and transition to e-cigarettes for a period of one month.
“E-cigarettes have proved enormously popular, partly because of the harm reduction compared with smoking traditional cigarettes.
However, there is still considerable debate in the scientific community over just how much safer they are and how good they are for smoking cessation.
It is imperative for us to look at the science behind this and get the full toxicological picture.”
The main objective is to monitor how the measures of toxicity change when people switch to e-cigarettes.
Although e-cigarette aerosol does not contain many of the harmful chemicals present in tobacco smoke, it does typically contain nicotine and other chemicals.
The first results are expected in a year. Dr Bailey said: “There are many studies looking at e-cigarette use in terms of smoking cessation and various respiratory disorders and cardiovascular disease.
“What is different from our study is nobody else has measured the effect of transitioning from smoking to e-cigarettes on various toxicity markers which could potentially induce cancer.
“We are expecting to see these markers quite elevated in chronic smokers, and once they transition to e-cigarettes, these carcinogenic markers to reduce.
“I think we are doing a very important study. It has the potential to drive policy.”