Handing Out Vapes in Emergency Rooms Could Save Thousands of Lives

April 5, 2024

Handing out free vapes in emergency rooms to people who smoke could save thousands of lives in the United Kingdom, according to researchers who trialed this approach.

The researchers, from the University of East Anglia (UEA), conducted their trial in six emergency departments in England and Scotland—including the Royal London Hospital, Leicester Royal Infirmary and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

Regardless of participants’ reasons for attending the departments, those who said they smoked were offered vape starter kits, cessation advice and a referral for cessation services—or else, for the control group, they were just given contact details for local cessation services. Participants’ smoking was then assessed after one, three and six months, using a carbon monoxide test.

Dr. Ian Pope of the UEA Norwich Medical School, a coauthor of the study, explained that the group given vapes had a significantly higher rate of abstinence from smoking after six months compared to the control group.

There are a number of reasons emergency departments could be particularly potent places to offer people vapes.

Of 488 people in the control group, 4.1 percent had quit smoking after six months. Among 484 participants in the vape group, 7.2 percent had quit—a rate that was 76 percent higher.

There are a number of reasons accident and emergency departments (A&E), as they’re known in the UK, could be particularly potent places to offer people vapes.

Providing smoking cessation support in the 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. Pope told Filter.

People living in deprived areas of the UK are much more likely to attend A&E than people from wealthier areas. People on low incomes are also much more likely to smoke.

The researchers say that rolling out their approach “could result in more than 22,000 extra people quitting smoking each year.”

And then there are the sheer numbers. In England alone, around 45,000 people visit A&E every single day. An additional 25,000 visit associated walk-in services for minor injuries.

Extrapolating from the findings of their study, the researchers say that rolling out their A&E approach “could result in more than 22,000 extra people quitting smoking each year.” When about half of people who smoke long-term will die of smoking-related causes, the implications are huge. And that’s just in the UK.

The very nature of emergency rooms could also mean they’re an especially likely venue for people to be receptive to making changes in their lives.

“The time people spend in emergency departments represents an opportunity,” Pope said, “where patients can be empowered to change their behavior and improve their health.”

British tobacco harm reduction advocate Clive Bates, of Counterfactual Consulting, elaborated on this. “It’s a point where people may become hyper-aware of their health and mortality, and may even be able to link their admission to smoking,” he told Filter.

“This is the sort of problem-solving, hands-on research we need more of.”

The study, Bates continued, illustrates that an A&E visit is “a powerful moment to intervene to try to start people down the track of a diversion from smoking to vaping,” leading to significant health and financial benefits.

Hospitals and health systems would make vast savings if many more people switch from cigarettes to vapes, previous research has indicated. Treatment for smoking-related conditions costs the UK’s National Health Service an estimated £2.5 billion a year.

Pope said that if the A&E intervention is funded to provide additional staff, so no additional pressure is felt by existing clinical staff, he sees no reason for “significant resistance” to the idea of rolling it out.

The study demonstrates that the strategy of intervening in emergency rooms works, particularly for people who are harder to reach, Bates concluded. “This is the sort of problem-solving, hands-on research we need more of.”



Photograph (cropped) by Rodhullandemu via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

Kiran Sidhu

Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales. Kiran's fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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