For Smokers, Going Cold Turkey Is More Effective Than Gradually Quitting

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A new study finds smokers looking to quit will have more success if they go cold turkey. INDIA-TOBACCO/ REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

For most long-term smokers, breaking up with butts is hard to do. But like any toxic relationship, sometimes it's best to sever ties completely and not let the affair drag on long enough to cause even more damage.

New research finds that smokers who really want to stick with their no-cig policy should simply pick a quit date and stick with it, rather than gradually reduce the number of cigarettes smoked over a given period of time.

An article published March 14 in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests going "cold turkey" is linked to the highest level of long-term smoking cessation success—smokers in the study who quit abruptly were 25 percent more likely to stop smoking completely over the long term.

The study involved 697 adult smokers whose primary end goal was to become a nonsmoker; some would try to quit abruptly and the other half would try to stop smoking gradually. (Study participants were randomly assigned to one of the two groups.) After receiving counseling from a nurse, study participants in the abrupt cessation group selected a quit date. Participants in the gradual smoking cessation group arranged to reduce their smoking by 75 percent over the course of two weeks prior to the quit date they selected, also after counseling with a nurse. All study participants in both groups received nicotine therapies such as patches, lozenges and other products to help curb cigarette cravings.

The researchers found that by the fourth week, 39.2 percent of gradual cessation group abstained from cigarettes versus 49 percent of those who went cold turkey. At six months, 15.5 percent of the participants in the gradual cessation group had completely stopped smoking compared with 22 percent of those who quit right away.

Previous research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggests gradual cessation isn't very effective because people who choose to slowly wean themselves off nicotine may be tempted to prolong smoking a little longer and drag out the process of quitting. Another study in Addiction finds that in order for gradual cessation programs to work, the motivation to quit actually really needs to exist; smokers who select this type of plan may not be completely committed to giving up cigarettes.

Currently, public health guidelines from the U.S. Public Health Service and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend abrupt quitting as the most effective smoking cessation program.

However, gradual cessation may still work for some smokers who want to quit completely at some point in the future. "Gradual cessation programs could still be worthwhile if they increase the number of persons who try to quit or take up support and medication while trying," the researchers write.