THE Welsh Assembly’s proposed ban on electronic cigarettes has been called into question following the publication of new research showing the devices can help smokers quit tobacco.

The new study, which was funded by Cancer Research UK, strongly suggests that policy makers in Cardiff have got the e-cig question hopelessly wrong.

The Welsh Assembly had been moving to ban e-cigs amid fears they could be a gateway to tobacco and are about to undertake a costly public consultation on the matter.

But the findings of the new study published in the journal Addiction suggest the opposite is true – they are an aid to quitting smoking.

The research by experts at University College, London, found that smokers had a 60 per cent better chance of dumping tobacco cigarettes if they switched to e-cigs compared with nicotine patches and gum or will power alone.

Researchers followed 5,863 smokers in England who had attempted to stop smoking without the aid of prescription medication or professional support.

Of those using e-cigarettes, a fifth reported having quit traditional cigarettes at the time the study was carried out.

Study leader Professor Robert West, said: "E-cigarettes could substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking.”

Co-author Dr Jamie Brown, also from University College London, said: "We will continue to monitor success rates in people using e-cigarettes to stop smoking to see whether there are improvements as the devices become more advanced."

Prof West acknowledged that some quitters may want to keep using e-cigarettes indefinitely, and it was not clear whether or not this carried long-term health risks.

He said: "From what is known about the contents of the vapour these will be much less than from smoking.

"Some public health experts have expressed concern that widespread use of e-cigarettes could 're-normalise' smoking. However, we are tracking this very closely and see no evidence of it.

“Smoking rates in England are declining, quitting rates are increasing and regular e-cigarette use among never smokers is negligible."

Alison Cox, Cancer Research UK's head of tobacco policy, said: "Smoking is the largest preventable cause of cancer and accounts for more than one in four cancer deaths in the UK - so helping smokers to stop is a vital contribution to the health of the UK.

"E-cigarettes may have a role in helping people to quit smoking but while the rapid rise in their popularity suggests a real opportunity, the evidence for their effectiveness is so far limited.

“Cancer Research UK is funding much-needed research into e-cigarette use to help inform policy development and individuals' choices, and research such as this is helping to paint a clearer picture."

The breakthrough was welcomed by leading electronic cigarette supplier

The firm’s James Dunworth said: “These findings should be a wake up call to the Welsh Government to stop wasting public money trying to ban products which actually help people to switch from smoking tobacco.

“To suggest they are a gateway product to tobacco flies in the face of all the evidence. The truth is e-cigarettes have already helped thousands to switch from smoking cigarettes but there are millions more who still need help.

“Whether they mean to or not the Welsh Assembly are acting to protect the interests of the tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical companies and to return people back to smoking traditional cigarettes.”

He added that regulations on electronic cigarettes in Spain had led to users returning to tobacco cigarettes, while a recent study in France, where the devices are not currently regulated, showed large numbers of young smokers were switching away from tobacco.

“If this ban goes through the Welsh Assembly leaders may well live to regret their mistake in the future as the millions e-cigs could have helped continue with their deadly addiction to tobacco.

“In a very real sense the politicians will be left with blood on their hands if they continue to seek a ban. It’s surely time they sat up and took notice of serious and compelling research such as this.”