Electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigarettes,” have been found to be statistically as effective as nicotine patches in helping smokers kick the habit, and were more effective in helping those who didn’t quit to cut down, according to study results in The Lancet. Investigators presented the research at the 2013 European Respiratory Society Annual Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

“It’s also interesting that the people who took part in our study seemed to be much more enthusiastic about e-cigarettes than patches, as evidenced by the far greater proportion of people in both of the e-cigarette groups who said they’d recommend them to family or friends, compared to patches,” said lead author Chris Bullen, associate professor and director of the National Institute for Health Innovation at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

For what researchers believe is the first-ever trial to assess whether e-cigarettes are more or less effective than nicotine patches, 657 smokers were divided into three groups: one received 13 weeks’ supply of commercially available e-cigarettes, the second group received 13 weeks’ supply of nicotine patches, and the third received placebo e-cigarettes.

After six months, around one in twenty study participants managed to remain completely abstinent from smoking. Among those who quit, the proportion of those using the e-cigarettes was higher: 7.3%, compared to 5.8% for those in the nicotine patches group, and 4.1% in the placebo group. The researchers note that, while the differences were not statistically significant, they suggest that e-cigarettes are comparable to nicotine patches in helping people to quit for at least six months.

Investigators discovered that, among those who were still smoking, cigarette consumption was markedly reduced in the nicotine e-cigarettes group, compared to the patches and placebo groups.

“Our findings point to potential for e-cigarettes with regard to cessation effectiveness beyond that noted in the present study,” the authors concluded. “Furthermore, because they have far greater reach1,2 and higher acceptability (as shown by the present study) among smokers than NRT, and seem to have no greater risk of adverse effects, e-cigarettes also have potential for improving population health.”

Researchers note the need for more research to determine the overall benefits and harms of the devices.