The Health Information and Quality Authority has said that an increased use of e-cigarettes by smokers trying to quit "would increase the number of people who successfully quit compared with the existing situation in Ireland".

For the first time e-cigarettes are included in a study on the cost effectiveness of aids for quitting smoking in Ireland.

The study found the most effective way to quit smoking is a combination of Varenicline, a prescription-only medication, along with nicotine replacement therapy including nicotine gum, patches, inhalers, intranasal and oral sprays, and tablets.

HIQA's analysis also looks at how many people use e-cigarettes to stop smoking in Ireland, as well as trends in other countries, while acknowledging that research into e-cigarettes is only beginning.

Director of Health Technology Assessment Dr Máirín Ryan said the research "found a high level of uncertainty surrounding both the clinical and cost-effectiveness of e-cigarettes.

"While the long-term effects of using e-cigarettes have not yet been established, data from Healthy Ireland reveals that 29% of smokers currently use e-cigarettes as an aid to quitting smoking."

She said: "HIQA's analysis shows that increased uptake of e-cigarettes as an aid to quitting would increase the number of people who successfully quit compared with the existing situation in Ireland and would be cost-effective, provided that the currently available evidence on their effectiveness is confirmed by further studies."

However, the Director General of the Research Institute for a Tobacco Free Society has voiced concern over the use of e-cigarettes as an aid for quitting smoking.

Speaking on RTÉ's Ray D'Arcy Show, Professor Luke Clancy said e-cigarettes are unlike other nicotine replacement therapies in that people who have never smoked before choose to use them.

He said 23% of 16-year-olds have tried e-cigarettes, 8% of whom had never smoked before - leading to fears that the electronic devices might be a gateway to cigarettes.

Prof Clancy says for now, people should stick to known nicotine replacement treatments.

HIQA says if uptake rates of e-cigarettes increases to the current rate of 45% in England, while still not being funded by the State, this would result in a decrease in the amount spent on interventions by approximately €2.6 million per year. 

HIQA has commenced a national public consultation on how best to quit smoking as part of an assessment into the cost-effectiveness of interventions offered by the HSE. 

At the moment the overall cost of smoking cessation to the State is estimated to be over €40 million annually. 

The HIQA report finds that all interventions would be considered cost-effective compared with unassisted quitting.

In 2013 the estimated cost to the healthcare system of smoking was over €460 million while the cost of lost productivity was over €1 billion, according to the report.

23% of the population over the age of 15 are smokers, with more male smokers than female. 

HIQA says approximately one in five deaths each year can be attributed to smoking, including deaths due to second-hand smoke.

HIQA was asked by the Department of Health to assess the evidence for therapies that aid with quitting smoking to inform policy decisions about improving the provision of these services and to underpin a planned national clinical guideline on smoking cessation in Ireland.

A public consultation seeking feedback on this report is open until 3 February 2017.

Following this, a final report will be prepared for consideration by the HIQA board, before being submitted to the Minister for Health and the HSE.