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Among people using drug treatment to stop smoking, adding telephone or face-to-face behavioural support boosts their chances of success. Adding support increases the proportion of people quitting from around 17% on average to about 20%. This is a small but worthwhile increase given the health risks associated with smoking.

These were the findings of an updated Cochrane review, which included 83 studies. All 29,536 participants were using nicotine replacement therapy or another drug to help them stop smoking.

The review compared adding behavioural support, most often four or more counselling sessions, with less or no support, or a different type of support. The extra support increased success rates after six months or longer, but there was little evidence on what form of support was best.

Overall, the quality of the studies was good, and the message that behavioural support is beneficial is conclusive. Commissioners should consider their local context and outcomes when selecting appropriate support packages.

Why was this study needed?

For people who smoke, giving up is the most effective thing they can do to reduce their risk of serious health conditions and early death. Public Health England has estimated that the annual financial burden of smoking on the NHS is £2.6 billion.

Behavioural support and drug therapies, including nicotine replacement therapy, bupropion and varenicline, can help people stop smoking. Behavioural support can range from the more intensive, such as a series of one-to-one counselling sessions, to group therapy, telephone helplines or brief advice.

Other Cochrane reviews have assessed the evidence on behavioural and pharmaceutical interventions individually. However, as they do not assess how much benefit is gained from adding different levels of behavioural support to drug therapy, this review aimed to fill the gap in research.

What did this study do?

This was an update of a Cochrane systematic review, which included 83 studies, with 29,536 participants followed for six months or more. The studies were mainly from the USA, with three from the UK. They were conducted mainly in healthcare and community settings.

Included studies compared receiving more behavioural support with receiving less or no support, or a different type of support. The support was all person-to-person, but could be delivered by telephone or face-to-face. There was variation in the number of contacts and duration of contact. In 76 studies, the control group received some form of support. All participants were offered or provided with drug treatments, mostly nicotine replacement therapy.

Overall the quality of evidence was good, and we can trust the conclusions of this review.

What did it find?

  • Pooling 65 studies with a total of 23,331 participants found that on average providing additional behavioural support increased the proportion of people not smoking at follow up, the quit rate, from about 17% to about 20% (risk ratio (RR) 1.15, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.08 to 1.22; high quality evidence). This was considered a clinically relevant difference, given the health risks associated with smoking.
  • The relative increase in quit rates remained similar when comparing more versus less behavioural support and when comparing support versus no support.
  • There was little variation in results between studies, and the results have remained consistent over the successive updates to the review, suggesting that the findings are robust.
  • Subgroup analyses suggested that both telephone support and face-to-face support improved quit rates (8 studies using telephone counselling, 6,670 participants, RR 1.25, 95% CI 1.15 to 1.37; 57 studies using face-to-face support, 16,661 participants, RR 1.11, 95% CI 1.03 to 1.19). As no direct comparison between telephone and face-to-face support was made, the slight difference in improvement could have been due to other differences between these studies.
  • Few studies compared different behavioural support interventions, and their findings did not conclusively show whether some were better than others.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

In its 2018 guidance on stop smoking interventions and services, NICE recommends that all adults who smoke are offered evidence-based interventions to help them quit, which includes behavioural support and nicotine replacement therapy, among others. NICE notes that behavioural support typically involves weekly meetings (one-on-one or in a group) for at least the first four weeks of a quit attempt.

NICE notes that those providing support should receive appropriate training, such as that provided by the National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training. Their training ensures that stop smoking practitioners have the knowledge and skills to deliver effective behavioural support.

What are the implications?

Both drug therapies and behavioural support are offered by the NHS to those trying to quit smoking. This review provides a clear message that providing these approaches together gives the best results.

There is a wide range of approaches to behavioural support. In the absence of definitive evidence on which are best, commissioners may wish to consider their local population, available services and the outcomes of ongoing stop smoking programmes in their area when tailoring approaches to achieve the best outcomes.

The National Centre for Smoking Cessation and Training provides a toolkit for commissioners to undertake a local needs analysis exercise.

Citation and Funding

Hartmann-Boyce J, Hong B, Livingstone-Banks J et al. Additional behavioural support as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019;(6):CD009670.

Cochrane UK and the Tobacco Addiction Cochrane Review Group are supported by NIHR infrastructure funding.


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Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre

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