Nicotine replacement medications are proven to help people stop smoking, but you wouldn’t know that from a number of recent headlines and news stories. The stories and hyperbolic headlines reference a recently published study that was not designed to test the effectiveness of nicotine replacement medication but is being touted as having done just that.
The authors of the study analyzed responses from three telephone surveys conducted over six years. People who agreed to participate in the telephone interview were asked about their smoking history, relapses to smoking, and methods used to try and stop smoking. The authors found, unsurprisingly, that there was a high rate of relapse among those who reported that they had stopped smoking during the two years prior to the survey. This is not unexpected because stopping smoking, for many people, can be quite difficult. Relapse is common. Frequently people try to stop a number of times, and explore different ways of quitting, before finally finding what works best for them.
Given the nature of tobacco dependence, it was predictable that the survey respondents reported high relapse rates whether or not they used nicotine replacement medication or counseling. It is unfortunate that the authors erroneously drew conclusions from this study that nicotine replacement or counseling are not effective in helping smokers to stop smoking. This study was not designed to evaluate that. Rather, it was focused on relapse. Many other studies that were designed to test the effectiveness of nicotine replacement medication have found that nicotine replacement does work, especially when taken in sufficient dose and long enough to manage the withdrawal and craving that people experience when they try to stop smoking.
The potential tragedy from the headlines generated by this study is that people who might otherwise have stopped smoking will not utilize treatments that have been proven time and again to be safe and effective. Cigarette smoking kills up to one half of those who continue to smoke. Nicotine replacement and counseling can more than double the likelihood that a person will successfully quit. We encourage smokers to continue working with their health care provider until they find the treatment that works best for them.