Clinical Guidelines for Family Physicians

Treatment for a tobacco-dependent adult

Applying American Thoracic Society’s new clinical practice guideline


Complications from tobacco use are the most common preventable cause of death, disability, and disease in the United States. Tobacco use causes 480,000 premature deaths every year. In pregnancy, tobacco use causes complications such as premature birth, intrauterine growth restriction, and placental abruption. In the perinatal period, it is associated with sudden infant death syndrome. While cigarette smoking is decreasing in adolescents, e-cigarette use in on the rise. Approximately 1,600 children aged 12-17 smoke their first cigarette every day and it is estimated that 5.6 million children and adolescents will die of a tobacco use–related death.1 For these reasons it is important to address tobacco use and cessation with patients whenever it is possible. Below is a case and recommendations related to a new American Thoracic Society guideline on initiating pharmacologic treatment in tobacco-dependent adults.

Dr. Anne Sprogell and Dr. Neil Skolnik of Abington (Pa.) Hospital-Jefferson Health

Dr. Anne Sprogell and Dr. Neil Skolnik


A forty-five-year-old male who rarely comes to the office is here today for a physical exam at the urging of his partner. He has been smoking a pack a day since age 17. You have tried at past visits to discuss quitting, but he had been in the precontemplative stage and had been unwilling to consider any change. This visit, however, he is ready to try to quit. What can you offer him?

Core recommendations from ATS guidelines

This patient can be offered varenicline plus nicotine replacement therapy rather than nicotine replacement therapy, bupropion, e-cigarettes, or varenicline alone. His course of therapy should extend beyond 12 weeks instead of the standard 6- to 12-week therapy. Alternatively, he could be offered varenicline alone, rather than nicotine replacement.2

A change from previous guidelines

What makes this recommendation so interesting and new is the emphasis it places on varenicline. The United States Preventive Services Task Force released a recommendation statement in 2015 that stressed a combination of pharmacological and behavioral interventions. It discussed nicotine replacement therapy, bupropion, and varenicline, but did not recommend any one over any of the others.3 The new recommendation from the American Thoracic Society favors varenicline over other pharmacologic interventions. It is based on an independent systematic review of the literature that showed higher rates of tobacco use abstinence at the 6-month follow-up with varenicline alone versus nicotine replacement therapy alone, bupropion alone, or e-cigarette use only.

A review of 14 randomized controlled trials showed that varenicline improves abstinence rates during treatment by approximately 40% compared with nicotine replacement, and by 20% at the end of 6 months of treatment. The review found that varenicline plus nicotine replacement therapy is more effective than varenicline alone. In this comparison, based on three trials, there was a 36% higher abstinence rate at 6 months using varenicline plus nicotine replacement. When varenicline use was compared with use of a nicotine patch, bupropion, or e-cigarettes, there was a reduction in serious adverse events – changes in mood, suicidal ideation, and neurological side effects such as seizures.2 Clinicians may remember a black box warning on the varenicline label citing neuropsychiatric effects and it is important to note that the Food and Drug Administration removed this boxed warning in 2016.4


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