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Nicotine patches and medications aren’t enough to quit smoking, a study finds

By Jennifer Huber

I’ve watched family members and friends struggle to quit smoking, using nicotine patches and prescription medications. For many, it continues to be an ongoing battle.

This struggle is common, according to a new study from the University of California, San Diego that shows using smoking cessation drugs alone may not improve your chances of successfully quitting. The researchers studied two patient groups — comparing patients who used medication aids to ones that did not — to evaluate the effectiveness of three frontline smoking cessation drugs. To learn more, I spoke with the lead author Eric Leas, PhD, who conducted the research as a graduate student at UC San Diego and is now a postdoc at Stanford Medicine.

What inspired you to study the effectiveness of smoking cessation drugs?

There is a major public health need for smoking cessation aids. Tobacco use remains the primary cause of cancer and cancer mortality in the United States and quitting smoking is so difficult for many smokers. I have several close family members and friends who have had debilitating disease caused by smoking and who struggled for many years to quit.

Several randomized trials have shown that some pharmaceutical smoking cessation aids can double quit rates. However, in the early 2000s, post-market surveillance studies of these cessation aids suggested that the population effectiveness did not match the randomized trial results. This was a major surprise to the medical field and met with some opposition. A criticism of these surveillance studies was that the same individual factors that make quitting difficult are also related to self-selected use of pharmaceutical aids when trying to quit. For instance, heavier smokers are more likely to use a cessation aid and also less likely to successfully quit. In social science and medicine this bias is known as ‘confounding.’

Why did you study two “matched” patient groups?

In our analysis, we attempted to address confounding variables using a method known as matching. The goal of matching is to make study comparison groups similar with respect to potential confounders. In addition to cigarette consumption, we matched sociodemographics such as age, sex, race-ethnicity and education; smoking characteristics such as previous quit history and nicotine dependence; self-efficacy in quitting and having a smoke-free home.

What did your study find?

Even after matching, we found no evidence that the pharmaceutical aids improved the likelihood of successful quitting. While understandable, this finding is disappointing considering the need for successful cessation aids.

One possible explanation is that in many of the cessation randomized trials, smokers received the drugs in combination with intensive behavioral support. This support is not typically provided in the population. Prescribing behavioral support along with these drugs may be needed — as our results suggest that administering the drugs on their own is not working.

What are you working on now?

In collaboration with other professors at the School of Medicine and Stanford Business School, I am currently extending this work by studying how different groups of smokers respond to smoking cessation treatments, with the goal of developing tailored treatment plans.