Researchers at UC San Diego found that promised results fail to meet expectations unless supported

Prescription drugs are becoming a more popular method for smoking cessation as these drugs become more readily available. But a new study from researchers at the University of California at San Diego’s School of Medicine has found that the real world results are falling short of what randomized clinical trials suggested. In light of this, they believe that the success of pharmaceutical drugs for smoking cessation purposes hinges on the way in which other techniques and strategies support them.

Around 34% of smokers looking to quit are currently using prescription drugs as a smoking cessation aid, but very few of those who only take drugs are experiencing positive results. This stands in stark contrast to a nearly doubled rate of success noted during the clinical trials for these types of medication. The lead researcher, Dr. Eric Leas, and his team from the UC San Diego School of Medicine and Moores Cancer Center concluded, “The results of randomized trials that tested these interventional drugs showed the promise of doubling cessation rates, but that has not translated into the real world.”

The Study

The study itself was published last week in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. They tested the efficacy of three of the most popular prescription smoking cessation tools, varenicline, bupropion, as well as high strength nicotine patches. Their data was gathered via the Current Population Survey-Tobacco Use Supplement, which is a census-style survey given to smokers who are 18 years or older. The purpose of the survey is to understand tobacco use across the country better. The researchers used a technique known as matching to group people by factors that might have a positive or negative impact on their ability to quit smoking. Such as the number of cigarettes smoked on a regular basis.

The purpose of matching is to limit the amount of implicit bias during testing, but even after going through the matching process, the researchers were unable to replicate the strong claims of the randomized trials. Something that did seem to help the rate of success though, was the use of behavioral counseling over the phone. Dr. Leas and his team agree that anyone looking to quit smoking by using these prescription drugs should also seek to enroll themselves in a program that can help track progress as well as support the overall process. Many states, including California and New York, have free over the phone counseling services for smokers attempting to quit. But in spite of that, most never seek out that extra help.

Dr. John Pierce, who was the most senior author of the study, said the following in regards to the prospect of support services, “Evidence is pointing to an important role of behavioral counseling when prescribing pharmaceutical aids. If the products were approved with counseling, we may have better success rates. As it is, less than 2 percent of smokers who use a pharmaceutical aid are using any behavioral counseling. In both of these longitudinal studies, this was a recipe for relapse to smoking.”

What It Means For Vaping

Vaping has continued to grow as a smoking cessation tool as reputable institutions, such as Public Health England have come out in support of the extreme harm reduction value of e-cigarettes. They are increasingly seen as a viable option for smokers looking to kick the habit, although vaping still has an overall poor reputation among the general public. By itself, vaping has been shown to be the best tool we currently have to help smokers off of cigarettes, so if they were used more often as a supplement to prescription drugs, it could prove to be a match made in heaven. A recent study out of the University of Louisville found that e-cigarettes fair better than any other form of smoking cessation tool, including cold turkey, family and friends support, smokeless tobacco, and of course, pharmaceutical nicotine replacement therapies. The researchers found that in fact, only the use of e-cigarettes resulted in a statistically significant improvement in the success rate. If these results are shown to hold up, it could mean that non-nicotine e-liquids become the go-to way to give extra support to smokers trying prescription smoking cessation tools.


It seems that vaping could be the missing piece of the puzzle for prescription nicotine replacement therapies. But first, the industry will have to overcome the poor public perception of vaping as an activity. Many people are just misinformed about e-cigarettes and see them as virtually the same as smoking. It’s vital that we improve this reputation if more people are going to use vaping as a supplement to prescription drugs. The British Psychological Society updated their policies regarding vaping earlier this year to reflect our changing understanding of the practice. One reason they identified for the success of vaping as a smoking cessation tool is its ability to satisfy the psychological cues of smoking, such as producing a cloud and bringing your hand to your face. If they are right, it’s evident just how vaping could support the prescription drugs, which lack these cues altogether. It’s so important that we spread the word about vaping because that’s the only way to improve its public perception and get more smokers on the road to successfully quitting.

Have you ever tried prescription smoking cessation drugs, and if so, how well did they work for you? Do you think that vaping could be a legitimate way to support these pharmaceutical tools? What do you think makes vaping such a successful smoking cessation tool? Let us know in the comments.

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