Support for stopping smoking through a telephone quit line: a new trial


Today’s blog comes courtesy of my friend and yours, the Lifestyle Elf:

“Mr Watson, come here, I want you”. These are the first intelligble words transmitted over a telephone, by Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, back in 1876. Nowadays, any observer of ears in the street will see a large proportion attached to mobiles; most of us are never far from our phones. Their high accessibility make them a promising means of delivering health programmes and support, such as smoking quitlines, and this method is also relatively inexpensive. But does this work? When people want to quit smoking, what sort of help do they want?

A newly published randomised controlled trial, conducted here in England, recruited 2591 people who called the National Health Service smoking helpline and agreed to set a quit date. They compared self-reported smoking cessation for six or more months after starting a quit attempt in groups offered free nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), more intensive proactive telephone support or standard helpline care. Telephone contact was made with 58% of smokers for whom current contact details were available after six months and this was similar across the groups. Here’s what they found:

  • Offering NRT or more intensive telephone support did not improve smoking quit rates after either one month or six months.
  • After six months, those offered NRT tended to be less likely to report that they had succeeded in stopping smoking
  • Around 19% of participants reported not smoking for six months since their quit date; just over half provided exhaled carbon monoxide samples and 81% of the readings confirmed they had not been smoking

The accompanying editorial in the BMJ made some points worth noting:

  • This trial took place in England, where NRT is already free to smokers wanting to quit
  • Research has shown that very few smokers (6% at most) seem prepared to call a quitline
  • In this study, 35% of callers agreed to further support but only 7% agreed to set a quit date, so many calls were from those not yet ready to quit

The search for effective ways to help people stop smoking continues. Later this month, Cochrane’s Tobacco Addiction Review Group will publish two review updates in the Cochrane Library. These add new evidence about two approaches to helping people stop smoking and I’ll be blogging about them here.


Ferguson J, Docherty G, Bauld L, Lewis S, Lorgelly P, Boyd KA, McEwen A, Coleman T. Effect of offering different levels of support and free nicotine replacement therapy via an English national telephone quitline: randomised controlled trial. BMJ 2012;344:e1696

BMJ editorial: Smoking cessation strategies. BMJ 2012;344;e1732

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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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