Having Nicotine Patches Mailed To You Might Slightly Up Your Chances Of Quitting Smoking

Smoker holding cigarette
Smokers mailed free nicotine patches are more likely to report quitting six months later than a control group, a new study finds. Alosh Bennett, CC BY 2.0

A Seamless for nicotine patches may actually help people quit smoking, suggests a new study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The team of Canadian researchers embarked on a particularly novel experiment. First, they randomly dialed thousands of heavy smokers, 10 or more cigarettes a day, over the phone and asked whether they’d be interested in receiving a free, five-week supply of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) through the mail. Of these participants, 500 were then randomly chosen to receive the mailed NRT without any form of additional counseling and followed up with six months later.

The team also kept track of another 499 volunteers who weren’t given anything in order to serve as a control group. After six months, the mailed NRT group was more than twice as likely to report quitting compared to the latter group, and there was a similarly-sized improvement seen when the researchers examined volunteers’ saliva samples for objective evidence of abstinence.

“The trial provides evidence of the effectiveness of mailed nicotine patches without behavioral support to promote tobacco cessation,” concluded the authors.

Before we get too excited, it should be noted the overall quit rate was low. Only 7.6 percent of the NRT group, 36 participants, self-reported quitting for at least 30 days versus 3 percent of the control group, or 15. And of the saliva samples returned and tested, only about half were usable — leaving 2.8 percent of the NRT group vs 1 percent of the control group certified as clean. That incompleteness in particular led the researchers to caution that their findings should be “tempered by the lack of biochemical validation for all participants.”

Still, as previously covered by Medical Daily, quitting smoking isn’t a piece of cake for most anyone. And while a combination of NRT, counseling, and/or prescription medication is often considered the most effective way to quit, there are many circumstances where that simply isn’t feasible or preferable for someone to undertake all at once.

As the researchers note, their study provides support that “direct-to-smoker programs with free mailed nicotine patches,” could provide a boost to smokers otherwise unable or unwilling to receive other type of cessation aids. There’s even the chance their findings might be underselling the potential of such a program since they only recruited smokers at random as opposed to those who would actively seek out free NRT if they could, perhaps by dialing a toll-free number.   

While the study is encouraging, it does fly in the face of other research cited by the authors showing people aren’t any more likely to quit smoking using NRT alone than going cold turkey — at least, once they’re out in the real world. That failure has often been attributed to people incorrectly using their patches or using it for too short a time.

It seems likely that any postal-NRT program will also have to figure out how to better motivate smokers into sticking to their treatment plan.

Source: Cunningham J, Kushnir V, Selby P, et al. Effect of Mailing Nicotine Patches on Tobacco Cessation Among Adult Smokers. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2016.

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