“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.


Counsel patients who want to quit smoking that abrupt smoking cessation is more effective for long-term abstinence than taking a gradual approach.


B: Based on one well-designed, randomized controlled trial.

Lindson-Hawley N, Banting M, West R, et al. Gradual versus abrupt smoking cessation: a randomized, controlled noninferiority trial. Ann Intern Med. 2016;164:585-592.1




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

Between 2013 and 2014, one in 5 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 vs abrupt smoking cessation methods.5

A previous Cochrane review of 10 randomized controlled trials demonstrated no significant difference in quit rates between gradual cigarette reduction leading up to a designated quit day 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 62,508 smokers who presented to nationwide cessation services. The researchers found that older participants (≥45 years of age) and heavy smokers (≥21 cigarettes/d) were more likely to quit gradually than abruptly.7


Quitting “cold turkey” is better than gradual cessation at 6 months

Lindson-Hawley, et al, conducted a randomized, controlled, non-inferiority trial in England to assess if gradual cessation is as successful as abrupt cessation as a means of quitting smoking.1 The primary outcome was abstinence from smoking at 4 weeks, assessed using the Russell Standard, a set of 6 standard criteria (including validation by exhaled carbon monoxide concentrations of <10 ppm) used by the National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training to decrease variability of reported smoking cessation rates in English studies.8

Study participants were recruited via letters from their primary care practice inviting them to call the researchers if they were interested in participating in a smoking cessation study. Almost 1100 people inquired about the study. In the end, 697 were randomized to either the abrupt-cessation group (n=355) or the gradual-cessation group (n=342). Baseline characteristics between the 2 groups were similar.

All participants were asked to schedule a quit date for 2 weeks after their enrollment. Patients randomized 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 2 weeks leading up to the quit date, along with 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 randomized to the abrupt-cessation group were instructed to continue their current smoking habits until the cessation date; during those 2 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, 21 mg/d nicotine patches, and the participant’s choice of short-acting NRT. Behavioral support consisted of visits with a research nurse at the patient’s primary care practice weekly for 2 weeks before the quit date, the day before the quit date, weekly for 4 weeks after the quit date, and 8 weeks after the quit date.

The chosen non-inferiority 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 non-inferiority; in fact, 4-week abstinence was significantly more likely in the abrupt-cessation group (49%) than in the gradual-cessation group (39.2%) (RR=0.80; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.66-0.93; number needed to treat [NNT]=10). Similarly, secondary outcomes of 8-week and 6-month abstinence rates showed superiority of abrupt over gradual cessation. At 6 months after the quit date, 15.5% of the gradual-cessation group and 22% of the abrupt-cessation group remained abstinent (RR=0.71; 95% CI, 0.46-0.91; NNT=15).


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