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Ready to quit smoking? Beware bad headlines.


A number of outlets, including NPR and the Huffington Post, published articles last week summarizing a study comparing outcomes from people who stopped smoking abruptly versus cutting down gradually. The study was interesting, but much of the coverage significantly misrepresented the findings, and many outlets ran pieces characterizing the study as supporting going “cold turkey” as being the most effective way to stop smoking.

This is nonsense.

It’s nonsense and not even what the study found.

The NPR article was actually pretty good, though it had a terrible headline that contradicted both the study’s findings and the actual content of the article. Here’s how the NPR article summarized the study design:

Study participants were randomly assigned to two groups. One had to quit abruptly on a given day, going from about a pack a day to zero. The other tapered down over the course of two weeks, first to half a pack each day, and then to a quarter of a pack before quitting.

People in both groups used nicotine patches before they quit, in addition to a second form of nicotine replacement, like gum or nasal spray. They also had talk therapy with a nurse before and after quit day.

Not only was this clearly not a “cold turkey” approach, generally thought of as not using any forms of Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), or medications, but participants actually used TWO kinds of NRT, and also received behavioral support.

Near the end of the NPR article, they specifically reference other studies where the “cold turkey” approach has shown to be incredibly unsuccessful.

“She says in other studies where participants didn’t get behavioral support and nicotine replacement, barely anyone managed to stay off cigarettes.”

The study assigned people to group regardless of their preference to quit abruptly or gradually, and found that those who quit abruptly, rather than by cutting down over a couple weeks, did better and were more likely to remain non-smoking at six months.

This adds more evidence, to the already well-established understanding, that using a form of NRT is an effective aid to attempts to stop smoking. Behavioral support is also an important aspect of making a successful effort.

Given that tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, causing 480,000 deaths each year in the US alone, it’s very disappointing to see inaccurate news coverage, especially since the headlines are very powerful, influence what we believe, and are often all people may read.