By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Up to 6.6 million early deaths in America might be averted over 10 years if smokers switched to e-cigarettes, and the nicotine delivery devices should be adopted as part of an "endgame for cigarette smoking", researchers said on Monday.
In an analysis of potential health benefits of getting smokers to quit tobacco, the researchers found that those 6.6 million people who switched to vaping would live for a collective total of up to 86.7 million extra years.
The findings "can help the (U.S.) Surgeon General and the public health community develop a strategy to reach the 'endgame' for cigarette smoking," the scientists said.
"Old policies need to be supplemented with policies that encourage substituting e-cigarettes for the far more deadly cigarettes," added David Levy, who co-led the work at Georgetown University Medical Center in the United States.
The global science community is divided over e-cigarettes and whether or not they are a useful public health tool as a nicotine replacement therapy. Also known as vapes, e-cigarettes contain no tobacco, but contain nicotine-laced liquids that the user inhales in a vapor.
Many specialists, including health experts at Public Health England, think e-cigarettes are a lower-risk alternative to tobacco and could help many people quit smoking.
Published in the journal Tobacco Control, this study used worst and best case scenarios and modeled possible public health outcomes in the United States if cigarette smoking was replaced by e-cigarettes.
Even in the most pessimistic scenario, the study found that 1.6 million former cigarette smokers could avoid premature death, while in the optimistic scenario, 6.6 million would.
"In addition (to lives saved), there would be tremendous health benefits including reduced disease disability to smokers, reduced pain and suffering, and reduced exposure to second hand smoke," Levy said.
Some experts not directly involved in the research also said its findings held a clear message.
"The benefits are massive and demonstrate the importance of embracing, rather than rejecting, the potential of this new generation of nicotine products," said John Britton, director of the UK centre for tobacco and alcohol studies at Nottingham University.