Breaking a habit

17:00, Jul 16 2013
Eric Birch
SMOKE-FREE: Eric Birch says electronic cigarettes felt strange at first but they were instrumental in helping him quit a 40-year habit.

In little more than a month Eric Birch stubbed out a 40-year smoking habit with the help of electronic cigarettes.

The 53-year-old construction worker says his lifelong addiction worsened after his marriage break-up a few years ago and he knew he had to do something about it.

"A 30-gram pouch of tobacco, which is about 40 cigarettes when you roll them up, would last me about four days. After the split it would only last me two days.

"So I rang up Quitline and they sent me all the usual stuff, but I felt miserable, because I needed something in [my mouth]," he says.

Mr Birch was put onto e-cigarettes as part of a world-first study being conducted at the University of Auckland into the effectiveness of the battery-powered devices as an aid to quit smoking.

More than 650 people are participating in the study which compares e-cigarettes to the more traditional nicotine patches.


E-cigarettes look similar to regular cigarettes and work by vaporising liquid nicotine, delivering a mist to the airways when users draw on the mouthpiece.

They deliver the nicotine without the other toxins found in tobacco products.

A third of the study participants received patches. Two-thirds were given e-cigarettes - some with nicotine, and the rest with only water vapour.

Participants were unaware which kind they had been given.

Mr Birch says that whichever kind of e-cigarette he received it worked a treat.

"It felt a bit strange at first, but then I thought bugger it, I'm doing this for me, I don't care what anyone else thinks," he says.

"I used to be one of those smokers that would wake up coughing every morning.

"That was what would wake me up in the morning, the first thing I would do is cough-cough, coffee and cigarette. Then cough-cough again.

"Now I don't cough in the morning, I sleep well, I can taste food. That's a very big difference."

He says his two sons are rapt in the change and he saves about $120 a week.

Michael Colhoun from anti-smoking action group ASH says there is mixed global opinion about the e-cigarettes, which are popular in Europe and Asia.

"Some say it is a great way to quit smoking and others say it is just a replacement for smoking," he says.

"We would certainly like to see some evaluation of e-cigarettes, and we would like to see a sensible approach to e-cigarettes. So if this research can get us more information then that's great."

Mr Colhoun says the product has fallen into a grey area in New Zealand.

"Because they are not a tobacco product they are not governed by tobacco law. You could smoke them on a plane, on a bus, in a club," he says. "They are also not breaking advertising laws, so you could see them on billboards, on TV and in magazines, so all the advertising laws we have fought for over the last 20 years come into question."

There have been no randomised trials investigating e-cigarettes' efficacy.

Associate professor Chris Bullen says results from the university study are due in September and will help inform international debate and policy on e-cigarettes.

"If shown to be effective, these devices could help many smokers as a safer alternative to tobacco smoking, and an alternative smoking cessation aid to the standard nicotine replacement products," Dr Bullen says.

E-cigarette receptacles without nicotine are available for sale in New Zealand.

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