“Cold Turkey” Works Best for Smoking Cessation

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Counsel patients who want to quit smoking that doing so abruptly leads to higher cessation rates than does quitting gradually.



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A 43-year-old man has a 35–pack-year smoking history and currently smokes one pack of cigarettes a day. He is eager to quit smoking since a close friend of his was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. He asks whether he should quit “cold turkey” or gradually. What do you recommend?

Between 2013 and 2014, one in five American adults reported using tobacco products some days or every day, and 66% of smokers in 2013 made at least one attempt to quit.2,3 The risks of tobacco use and the benefits of cessation are well established, and behavioral and pharmacologic interventions (both alone and in combination) increase smoking cessation rates.4 The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that health care providers address tobacco use and cessation with patients at regular office visits and offer behavioral and pharmacologic interventions.5 Current guidelines, however, make no specific recommendations regarding gradual versus abrupt smoking cessation methods.5

A previous Cochrane review of 10 RCTs demonstrated no significant difference in quit rates between gradual cigarette reduction and abrupt cessation. The meta-analysis was limited, however, by differences in patient populations, outcome definitions, and types of interventions (both pharmacologic and behavioral).6

In a retrospective cohort study, French investigators reviewed an online database of more than 60,000 smokers who presented to nationwide cessation services. The researchers found that older participants (those 45 and older) and heavy smokers (≥ 21 cigarettes/d) were more likely to quit gradually than abruptly.7


“Cold turkey” is better than gradual cessation at six months

A noninferiority RCT was conducted in England to assess whether gradual smoking cessation is as successful as abrupt cessation.1 The primary outcome was abstinence from smoking at four weeks, assessed using the Russell Standard. This set of six criteria (including validation by exhaled CO concentrations of < 10 ppm) is used by the National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training to decrease variability of reported smoking cessation rates in English studies.8

Participants were recruited via letters from their primary care practice inviting them to participate in a smoking cessation study. The 697 subjects were randomized to either the abrupt-cessation group or the gradual-cessation group. Baseline characteristics were similar between groups.

All participants were asked to schedule a quit date for two weeks after their enrollment. Patients assigned to the gradual-cessation group were provided nicotine replacement patches (21 mg/d) and their choice of short-acting nicotine replacement therapy (NRT; gum, lozenges, nasal spray, sublingual tablets, inhalator, or mouth spray) to use in the two weeks leading up to the quit date. They were given instructions to reduce smoking by half of the baseline amount by the end of the first week, and to a quarter of baseline by the end of the second week.

Patients randomly assigned to the abrupt-cessation group were instructed to continue their current smoking habits until the cessation date; during those two weeks they were given nicotine patches (because the other group received them, and some evidence suggests that precessation NRT increases quit rates) but no short-acting NRT.

Following the cessation date, treatment in both groups was identical, including behavioral support, nicotine patches (21 mg/d), and the patient’s choice of short-acting NRT. Behavioral support consisted of visits with a research nurse at the patient’s primary care practice at the following intervals: weekly for two weeks before the quit date; the day before the quit date; weekly for four weeks after the quit date; and eight weeks after the quit date.

The chosen noninferiority margin was equal to a relative risk (RR) of 0.81 (19% reduction in effectiveness) of quitting gradually, compared with abrupt cessation of smoking. Quit rates in the gradual-reduction group did not reach the threshold for noninferiority; in fact, four-week abstinence was significantly more likely in the abrupt-cessation group than in the gradual-cessation group (49% vs 39.2%; RR, 0.80; number needed to treat [NNT], 10). Similarly, secondary outcomes of eight-week and six-month abstinence rates showed superiority of abrupt over gradual cessation. Six months after the quit date, 15.5% of the gradual-cessation group and 22% of the abrupt-cessation group remained abstinent (RR, 0.71; NNT, 15).


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