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Smokers were more likely to quit smoking for good when they picked a date and simply stopped smoking, a recent study found. Smokers who tried to cut back gradually.
Nicola Lindson-Hawley, PhD, of the University of Oxford in England, and her colleagues reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine that 22.5 percent of participants in a study who made no effort to change their smoking habits before a quit date were able to stay off cigarettes for at least six months. They were compared to the 15.5 percent who were able to quit smoking for six months after cutting back cigarettes by 75 percent every day for two weeks before their quit dates.
Although 22.5 percent and 15.5 percent success rates may not seem very high, these are actually better than the results of most other smoking cessation programs. The message of the study isn't that gradually cutting back on cigarettes doesn't work, authors of the study say, it's that a cold turkey approach to quitting smoking works better.
The Oxford study enrolled 697 smokers who received nicotine replacement therapy and behavioral nurses throughout the study. Half of the smokers were told simply to stop smoking at their designated quit day, which was two weeks after enrollment in the study. The other half of the smokers were told to reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked each day by 50 percent during the first week and by another 25 percent in the second week, quitting "for good" two weeks from the day they enrolled in the study.
The cold turkey approach to smoking cessation and overcoming nicotine addiction was also more successful in the short term. Four weeks into the study, 49 percent of the cold turkey group but only 39 percent of the gradual group were still off cigarettes. Whether or not the participants preferred a cold turkey or a gradual cessation approach made a difference, too. Participants in the study were assigned one of the two methods randomly but were asked which method they would prefer. Smokers who made a commitment up front to smoking cessation (on the lines of "I'll just quit") had a 52.2% success rate, while smokers who preferred to cling to their habit as long as possible ("I want to reduce smoking gradually") had a 38.8% success rate.
These results don't mean that quitting cigarettes abruptly is always superior to quitting cigarettes gradually. The Oxford study excluded people who had made multiple attempts, and failed, to quit smoking before. In the real world, many people try to kick the smoking habit multiple times without success. It's possible that people in this group are more likely to be successful at cutting back on the number of cigarettes they smoke if they don't set a date that they are going to quit smoking for good. These smokers may look for a method that allows them to define success as not smoking as much, which is undoubtedly an improvement for their health. But wouldn't it be nice if some pill could just take the urge to smoke away?