Clinical Guidelines for Family Physicians

What to do when a patient is not ready to stop smoking

Recommendations from the American Thoracic Society


Below is a case involving a patient who is not yet ready to quit smoking. We later provide treatment recommendations for this patient based on a new guideline from the American Thoracic Society.


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

Dr. Anne Sprogell and Dr. Neil Skolnik

A 58-year-old female comes into the office for a physical exam. She has been smoking two packs a day since she was 23 years of age. You have tried at previous visits to get her to quit, but she hasn’t been interested. The patient says she has a lot of stress, and that it is still not the right time for her to stop smoking. You tell her she needs to quit and, though the patient understands that quitting would be beneficial for her health, she just isn’t ready to try to kick the habit. How do you proceed?

The Guideline in context

Even though this patient stated that she is not ready to stop smoking, she is still a candidate for pharmacological treatment for her tobacco dependence and can be offered varenicline, according to the ATS guideline.1

It is imperative that tobacco cessation is addressed with patients in the most effective and comprehensive ways possible. In a previously published column, we have discussed the ATS’ recommended approaches for treating patients who are ready to stop smoking cigarettes. The reality is that many patients, if not most, are not ready to quit when we speak to them during any given office visit. The ATS guideline addresses this critical issue by recommending treatment with varenicline in patients who are not ready to stop smoking. It also states that this is a better strategy than waiting to start treatment until patients say they are ready for it.

This recommendation – to prescribe varenicline to smokers even when they are not ready to quit smoking – is based on solid clinical trial evidence. Research has shown that behavior change is dynamic and that the decision to stop smoking is not always a planned one.1 Patients often make quit attempts between office visits, and are often successful in those attempts. Because the decision to try to stop smoking is influenced by the satisfaction and physical addiction that comes from smoking, a medication such as varenicline that is a partial agonist/antagonist at the alpha4-beta2 nicotinic receptor might increase the likelihood that a patient would decide to try to stop smoking. This is because taking this type of a drug would lead the patient to no longer experience the reinforcing effects of nicotine.2 This hypothesis was examined in five randomized trials.1

In these studies, regular smokers who were not ready to make a quit attempt were randomized to varenicline versus placebo. Twice as many individuals who took varenicline stopped smoking 6 months after starting treatment.1

Suggested treatment

This patient should be offered varenicline. This individual meets the criteria for this treatment according to the ATS guideline in that the patient is a regular smoker who doesn’t think she is ready to stop smoking but understands she needs to stop and is open to taking medication to assist her with quitting.

Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health. Dr. Sprogell is a third-year resident in the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health. They have no conflicts related to the content of this piece. For questions or comments, feel free to contact Dr. Skolnik on Twitter @NeilSkolnik.


1. Leone F T et al. Initiating pharmacologic treatment in tobacco-dependent adults: An official American Thoracic Society Clinical Practice Guideline. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2020 Jul 15;202(2):e5–e31.

2. Ebbert JO et al. Varenicline for smoking cessation: Efficacy, safety, and treatment recommendations. Patient Prefer Adherence. 2010;4:355-62.

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