Cigarette smokers face twice the risk of heart disease compared with non-smokers, and most of them—more than 60%—want to quit. Unfortunately, the likelihood of success for those who attempt to quit on their own is dismal: fewer than 5% will remain tobacco-free one year later.
But “with effective treatments, we can quadruple or quintuple or even sextuple the success rate,” explained Robert Reid, PhD, deputy division head of Prevention and Rehabilitation at the Ottawa Heart Institute. “There are opportunities to intervene with smokers and offer treatment that are not being taken advantage of at this point in time.”
With the goal of highlighting recent advances in treatments to aid smoking cessation, as well as pointing out persistent myths about cessation that might be preventing doctors from providing the most effective tools to their patients, Dr. Reid and colleagues at the Heart Institute published the first review of smoking cessation treatment in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in over a decade.
The issues discussed in the review include:
- Effectiveness: Combining smoking cessation aids is more effective than any single treatment alone. For example, combining a nicotine patch with a nicotine gum, lozenge, inhaler or oral spray is more effective than any single nicotine replacement (NRT) aid. Adding a nicotine patch to the oral cessation drug varenicline (Chantix®) works better than varenicline alone.
- Safety: Contrary to earlier concerns, a recent large clinical trial showed that varenicline does not increase the risk of suicide, depression or other mental health issues. And NRT is both safe and effective for patients who already have heart disease.
- Goals: Even though some smokers might not be ready to quit right away, many are interested in reducing their tobacco use, either as a step towards quitting or as a goal in itself, and many of the treatments for cessation can also be used to help people minimize their smoking.
The authors also address the fact that reliable systems are needed at every level of care “to make sure that all smokers are identified and offered assistance when you come into contact with them,” said Dr. Reid. “There’s a gap in that clinicians don’t seem to address this very routinely in their practice.” Many barriers keep this gap open, including competing medical priorities during visits and knowledge of what it is that patients need to help them quit, he explained.
“A cigarette is a finely tuned instrument of addiction,” added Dr. Reid. “People are generally smoking, particularly if they’ve been at it a while, out of compulsion and addiction, not as a choice.”
The practice setting itself must be changed “to make it easy for clinicians to intervene with smokers that they come into contact with. That’s everything from having materials close to hand, to having reminders and cues in the environment and in the electronic medical record, to having easy access to referral for follow-up,” he explained.
“Smoking is really the most preventable cause of why people are being hospitalized, why they’re accessing the healthcare system in the first place,” said Dr. Reid. “So it doesn’t make sense if we don’t address the root the cause of why people are coming to see us.”
[A longer version of this article originally appeared in The Beat.]