Nicotine Patch Just As Effective As Prescription Drugs For Quitting Smoking

Discarded cigarette box
For smokers who want to quit, the patch might be every bit as effective as taking prescription medications, a new study finds. StockyPics, CC0 1.0

Trying to quit smoking isn’t easy for most people. But for those willing to try, there are plenty of helpful treatments ranging from the pharmaceutical to the hypnotic.

Now, a new study published Tuesday in JAMA has found that some of the most common cessation aids — the nicotine patch, the prescription drug varenicline, (brand name, Chantix), and combination nicotine replacement therapy (C-NRT) — are equally as effective as the other. Though that might be seen as generally good news, varenicline is often the more expensive and side-effect laden option of the three; hopeful quitters who want the best bang for their buck may want to look elsewhere.

“The results raise questions about the relative effectiveness of intense smoking pharmacotherapies,” the study authors concluded.

The researchers rounded up 1,086 smokers to participate in a three-pronged randomized clinical trial intended to help them quit smoking. For a period of twelve weeks each, 241 volunteers were given the patch only; 424 were given varenicline; and the remaining 424 were given C-NRT (a nicotine patch and lozenge). At the 6- and 12-month mark, subjects were asked to self-report their success rates, which were further verified by testing for the presence of carbon monoxide in their system. Though the volunteers were obviously aware of which treatment group they were in prior to testing, the researchers weren’t in order to minimize bias.  

Researchers didn't find any substantial differences between the groups. For example, at 12 months,  20.8 percent of patch wearers were certified clean of smoking in the past seven days compared to 19.1 percent of varenicline takers, and 20.2 percent of people on C-NRT. While none of the treatments were especially uncomfortable to go through, people who took varenicline were more likely to experience adverse events like insomnia, constipation, and indigestion compared to patch wearers.  

Previous research, including extensive reviews of the available evidence, has found varenicline to be the clear winner among cessation treatments, but the researchers noted theirs is the first open label study to “directly contrast varenicline and C-NRT pharmacotherapies, both with one another and with the nicotine patch.”

If nothing else, this latest study perhaps indicates smokers who want the best chance to quit should be allowed to choose whichever treatment option of the three they feel most able to stick with.

Still not the best way to quit smoking, by the way? Going cold turkey.

Source: Baker T, Piper M, Stein J, et al. Effects of Nicotine Patch vs Varenicline vs Combination Nicotine Replacement Therapy on Smoking Cessation at 26 Weeks. JAMA. 2016.

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