Blog | Friday, February 10, 2012

Nicotine patches work if you take the short view

Here is another example of less than responsible journalism. Both the Wall Street Journal and Fox News report "Quit smoking: A new case for going cold turkey." Even NPR asked Do Nicotine Patches And Gum Help Smokers Quit?

Other reports similarly headline with questions regarding the effectiveness of the nicotine patch, which has been a tried and true treatment to help smokers quit. All these reports stem from a study done by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts in Boston and published online in the journal Tobacco Control, that found that over a 5-year period, former smokers who used nicotine-replacement products were just as likely to relapse as those who quit on their own.

This is indeed an important study because it shows that relapse rates are high, and nicotine patches may be insufficient to prevent quitters from relapsing. Indeed, other methods should be sought for recent quitters to prevent them from relapsing.

The problem with the way the media is reporting the study is that it is confusing quitting and relapse. Countless studies show that nicotine replacement about doubles the chance that you will successful quit, which is usually defined as not one cigarette for 12 weeks (though better studies use 52 weeks to define quitting). In this study, all the people studied had recently quit.

This study was not measuring whether or not the patch helped these folks quit, but whether people who had quit using the patch were any different than people who had quit without the patch in terms of relapse several years down the road.

People interested in quitting smoking should not be confused by the reports in the media. Nicotine replacement will help you quit. The evidence for using medication (nicotine, bupropion, varenicline) is so strong that the U.S. Surgeon General's guidelines recommends that all smokers (even those at risk to medication side effects such as heart patients and pregnant women) be offered some form of medication, since it is so effective.

Again, the study is an important one because it shows we need to look beyond nicotine replacement to prevent long-term relapse. However, the journalists who reported on this study shouldn't have suggested that smokers consider going cold turkey.

Matthew Mintz, MD, is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. He is board certified in internal medicine and has been practicing for more than a decade. He is also an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients. This post originally appeared at Dr. Mintz' Blog. Conflict-of-interest disclosures are available here.