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Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21;(1):CD003999. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003999.pub3.

Relapse prevention interventions for smoking cessation.

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  • 1Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, Turner Street, London, UK, E1 2AD.

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A number of treatments can help smokers make a successful quit attempt, but many initially successful quitters relapse over time. Several interventions were proposed to help prevent relapse.


To assess whether specific interventions for relapse prevention reduce the proportion of recent quitters who return to smoking.


We searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group trials register in August 2008 for studies mentioning relapse prevention or maintenance in title, abstracts or keywords.


Randomized or quasi-randomized controlled trials of relapse prevention interventions with a minimum follow up of six months. We included smokers who quit on their own, or were undergoing enforced abstinence, or who were participating in treatment programmes. We included trials that compared relapse prevention interventions to a no intervention control, or that compared a cessation programme with additional relapse prevention components to a cessation programme alone.


Studies were screened and data extracted by one author and checked by a second. Disagreements were resolved by discussion or referral to a third author.


Fifty-four studies met inclusion criteria, but were heterogeneous in terms of populations and interventions. We considered 36 studies that randomized abstainers separately from studies that randomized participants prior to their quit date.Looking at studies of behavioural interventions which randomised abstainers, we detected no benefit of brief and 'skills-based' relapse prevention methods for women who had quit smoking due to pregnancy, or for smokers undergoing a period of enforced abstinence during hospitalisation or military training. We also failed to detect significant effects of behavioural interventions in trials in unselected groups of smokers who had quit on their own or with a formal programme. Amongst trials randomising smokers prior to their quit date and evaluating the effect of additional relapse prevention components we also found no evidence of benefit of behavioural interventions in any subgroup. Overall, providing training in skills thought to be needed for relapse avoidance did not reduce relapse, but most studies did not use experimental designs best suited to the task, and had limited power to detect expected small differences between interventions. For pharmacological interventions, extended treatment with varenicline significantly reduced relapse in one trial (risk ratio 1.18, 95% confidence interval 1.03 to 1.36). Pooling of five studies of extended treatment with bupropion failed to detect a significant effect (risk ratio 1.17; 95% confidence interval 0.99 to 1.39). Two small trials of oral nicotine replacement treatment (NRT) failed to detect an effect but treatment compliance was low and in two other trials of oral NRT randomizing short-term abstainers there was a significant effect of intervention.


At the moment there is insufficient evidence to support the use of any specific behavioural intervention for helping smokers who have successfully quit for a short time to avoid relapse. The verdict is strongest for interventions focusing on identifying and resolving tempting situations, as most studies were concerned with these. There is little research available regarding other behavioural approaches. Extended treatment with varenicline may prevent relapse. Extended treatment with bupropion is unlikely to have a clinically important effect. Studies of extended treatment with nicotine replacement are needed.

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