Smokers who attent a hospital A&E department for any reason will be offered free e-cigarettes as part of a new trial designed to aid quitting the habit.

It comes as a Cochrane Review, led by Oxford University and involving the University of East Anglia (UEA), indicated that nicotine e-cigarettes could help more people quit smoking than nicotine replacement therapy such as chewing gum and patches.

Five hospitals will participate in the 30-month trial, two in London, and also in Norwich, Leicester and Edinburgh.

Some smokers will also be referred to local smoking-cessation services and be given medical advice.

Growing evidence supports the use of e-cigarettes as an effective method of curbing real smoking.

Public Health England has estimated that around 50,000 smokers per year quit with the help of e-cigarettes in England. 

Though not yet available as a prescription on the NHS, experts in the health service consider them less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes, with smoking killing an estimated 75,000 people in 2019. 

The trials, due to begin in autumn, will see smokers given vaping starter packs and referred for further support.

Smokers who agree to take part in the trial will be randomly assigned to receive either smoking advice during their emergency department wait, an e-cigarette starter pack and referral to local stop smoking services, or just written information about locally available stop smoking services.

Both groups of patients will be asked if they are still smoking one, three and six months after they attended hospital.

The research team hope to eventually recruit around 1,000 smokers to the trial.

They’ll be expected to fund the cost of further vaping materials themselves, and will be asked at intervals of one month, three months and six months later if they are still smoking cigarettes. 

Prof Caitlin Notley of the University of Anglia, helping to lead the study, told the BBC that A&E would be a good place to target people who might never have considered vaping.

"Electronic cigarettes mimic the experience of cigarette smoking because they are hand-held and generate a smoke-like vapour when used," she said

"They can be an attractive option for helping people switch from smoking, even if they have tried and failed in the past."

Prof John Newton, at Public Health England, meanwhile, told the BBC:

"The best thing that a smoker can do is to stop smoking completely and the evidence shows that vaping is one of the most effective quit aids available, helping around 50,000 smokers quit a year," he said.

"Thousands more could have quit except for unfounded safety fears about e-cigarettes."