Beyond “Safe and Effective”: The urgent need for high-impact smoking cessation medications

Laura J. Rosen*, Tal Galili, Jeffrey Kott, Vaughan Rees

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Smoking cessation medications (SCMs) are an evidence-based cornerstone of comprehensive tobacco control programs globally. However, the impact of SCMs on population smoking prevalence is controversial, with inconsistencies between randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and population-based observational studies. We estimated SCM impact on permanent cessation and population smoking prevalence by extrapolating efficacy estimates from meta-analyses of RCTs, using the standard population impact formula: efficacy*reach. We calculated the potential SCM impact under a range of assumptions for permanent cessation (20%,14%), behavioral support (yes/no), reach (40%–2%), and underlying smoking prevalence. Assuming behavioral support for all, depending on reach, 8%–0.3% of smokers are expected to quit permanently. Without behavioral support, permanent cessation is estimated to be 6.4%–0.2%. Assuming an underlying population smoking prevalence of 14%, (current U.S. prevalence), the maximum impact on population smoking prevalence is 1.12%. Impact on prevalence increases with increasing underlying country-specific levels of prevalence. With current U.S. levels of reach, behavioral support and smoking prevalence, we estimate that, based on a single course of treatment, 2.3% of smokers would quit permanently, contributing to a 0.3% decrease in population level smoking prevalence. Even under ideal conditions, the potential of current first-line SCMs to increase cessation in a substantial proportion of smokers, and reduce population smoking prevalence, is limited. In order to avert the predicted billion tobacco-caused deaths in this century, “safe and effective” medications are not sufficient: SCMs with high population impact are urgently needed. Policies to ensure the availability and accessibility of highly efficacious SCMs, with behavioral support, are crucial.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106567
JournalPreventive Medicine
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • Behavioral support
  • Efficacy
  • Nicotine replacement therapy
  • Pharmacotherapy
  • Population impact
  • Reach
  • Smoking cessation
  • Smoking cessation medications


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