4 Ways to help your patients with schizophrenia quit smoking

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Tobacco-related cardiovascular disease is the primary reason adults with schizophrenia die on average 28 years earlier than their peers in the U.S. general population.1 To address this, clinicians need to prioritize smoking cessation and emphasize to patients with schizophrenia that quitting is the most important change they can make to improve their health. Here are 4 ways to help patients with schizophrenia quit smoking.

Provide hope, but be realistic. Most patients with schizophrenia who smoke want to quit; however, patients and clinicians alike have been discouraged by low quit rates and high relapse rates. Smoking often is viewed as one of the few remaining personal freedoms, as a lower priority than active psychiatric symptoms, or even as neuroprotective. By perpetuating these falsehoods and avoiding addressing smoking cessation, we are failing our patients.

With persistent engagement and use of effective pharmacotherapeutic interventions, smoking cessation is attainable and does not worsen psychiatric symptoms. Additionally, smoking cessation could save patients >$4,000 a year. It is crucial to make smoking cessation a priority at every appointment, and to offer patients hope and practical guidance through repeated attempts to quit.

Offer varenicline. For patients with schizophrenia, cessation counseling or behavioral interventions alone have a poor efficacy rate of approximately 5% (compared with 15% to 20% in the general population).2 Varenicline is the most effective smoking cessation treatment; it increases cessation rates 5-fold among patients with schizophrenia.3 As demonstrated by the Evaluating Adverse Events in a Global Smoking Cessation Study (EAGLES),4 varenicline does not lead to an increased risk of suicidality or serious neuropsychiatric adverse effects.

When starting a patient on varenicline, set a quit date 4 weeks from medication initiation. Individuals with schizophrenia often have a greater smoking burden and experience more intense symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. A 4-week period between medication initiation and the quit date will allow these patients to gradually experience reduced cravings and separate minor adverse effects of the medication from those of nicotine withdrawal. Concurrent prescription of nicotine replacement therapy (eg, patch, gum, lozenge, inhaler) also is safe and can assist in quit attempts.

Consider varenicline maintenance therapy. After a successful quit attempt, increase the likelihood of sustained cessation by continuing varenicline beyond 12 weeks. Varenicline can be used as a maintenance medication to prevent smoking relapse in patients with schizophrenia; when prescribed to these patients for an additional 3 months, it can reduce the relapse rate similarly to that seen in smokers in the general population.5

Adjust antipsychotic dosages. Tobacco smoke increases the activity of cytochrome P450 1A2, which metabolizes several antipsychotics. Thus, after successful smoking cessation, concentrations of clozapine, fluphenazine, haloperidol, and olanzapine may increase, and dose reduction may be warranted. Conversely, if a patient resumes smoking, dosages of these medications may need to be increased.


The authors thank Anne Eden Evins, MD, MPH, and Corinne Cather, PhD, for their input on this article.

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