How to Quit Smoking: What We Know

Smoking cigarettes contributes to 80 percent of lung cancer deaths in women and 90 percent of lung cancer deaths in men, and it is estimated to have caused more than 130,000 deaths from the disease between 2005 and 2010.

But smoking damage does not stop with lung cancer: the habit can cause or contribute to cancers of the esophagus, larynx, mouth, throat, kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, cervix, colon, and rectum, as well as acute myeloid leukemia.

“Smoking affects nearly every organ of the body,” says Andy Tan, PhD, MPH, of Dana-Farber’s Center for Community-Based Research.

Quitting can have dramatically positive effects for both cancer patients and non-cancer patients, including increased life expectancy and decreased chances of cancer recurrence. Unfortunately, quitting smoking is not always simple. The behavioral and chemical addiction to smoking makes for a powerful combination that can be difficult to beat. But studies show there are smoking cessation aids that work better than others.

Pack of Parliament cigarettes.

What has worked

  • Pharmacotherapy, or using pharmaceutical drugs and nicotine replacement products. Nicotine patches, lozenges, gum, sprays, and inhalers allow the bloodstream to gradually absorb small amounts of nicotine – the main addictive ingredient in cigarettes – ideally reducing one’s craving. Other methods of pharmacotherapy include prescription medicines. In one analysis, nicotine replacement and the prescription medicine Bupropion helped 80 percent more people quit smoking versus those who were given placebos.
  • Behavioral counseling. Smoking cessation counseling can come in various forms and doses – from a five-minute patient-physician consultation to regularly scheduled in-person therapy – and provides practical advice and encouragement for patients to avoid triggers and deal with situations when they are tempted to smoke. Individual smoking counseling was found in one analysis to help smokers quit, though more research is needed to determine what extent of counseling is most successful.
  • Combination therapy blends pharmacotherapy and behavioral counseling. A combination of behavioral support and medication dramatically increases the chances of successfully quitting after at least six months (by 70 to 100 percent), as compared to seeking only brief advice or support.
  • Financial and material incentives. Some employers, hospitals, and community programs have instituted incentive programs, offering prize draws and cash payments, among other forms of motivation, to smokers who quit. Some trials have shown that smokers were most likely to stop smoking if they received substantial cash payments.

Where the jury’s still out

  • E-cigarettes, which simulate cigarettes by delivering smoke-like flavored aerosol and nicotine. Some studies have shown a positive correlation between e-cigarette use and smoking cessation, noting that e-cigarettes can alleviate smoking withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Still, researchers say there is not enough quality research to conclude whether e-cigarettes are an effective way to quit smoking and if they are a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes.
  • Acupuncture. A review of acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy, and electrostimulation studies found no evidence that these therapies are effective in helping smokers quit for six months or more. However, researchers continue to investigate whether these strategies may be helpful.

Looking to quit smoking? Get tips on how to stop after cancer treatment, visit, or call the Smokers’ Helpline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW.