Nicotine replacement therapy, including patches and gum, don't seem to help people quit smoking in the long-term, researchers say.

In a study published in Monday's online issue of the journal Tobacco Control, investigators at the Harvard School of Public Health reported they followed 787 adult smokers who had recently quit.

"This study shows that using nicotine replacement therapy is no more effective in helping people stop smoking cigarettes in the long term than trying to quit on one's own," study author Hillel Alpert said.

Heavily dependent smokers who used nicotine gum, nicotine inhalers or nasal spray to help them quit, without receiving professional help, were twice as likely to relapse compared with those who did not use the products, the researchers found.

"This may indicate that some heavily dependent smokers perceive nicotine replacement therapy as a sort of 'magic' pill, and upon realizing it is not, they find themselves without support in their quitting efforts, doomed to failure," the study's authors concluded.


Heavy smokers who used nicotine gum or similar products to help them quit, without receiving professional help, were twice as likely to smoke again compared with those who did not use the products. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

In the study, participants were surveyed about their use of the products over three time periods: 2001-02, 2003-04 and 2005-06.

For each time period, almost a third of recent quitters reported they had relapsed. The researchers found no difference in relapse rate among those who used nicotine replacement therapy for more than six weeks, with or without professional counselling.

There was also no difference in quitting success with nicotine replacement therapy for either heavy or light smokers.

"The study also points out that we have to engage people socially and psychologically to help them to quit as well as to use effective public health interventions, like making smoking illegal in public places and raising the price of cigarettes," said CBC medical specialist Dr. Karl Kabasele, who works in the field of smoking cessation at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

At CAMH, nicotine replacement therapies do work for some people, said Dr. Peter Selby, head of the hospital's nicotine dependence clinic.

"People are often expecting medications to be the magic bullet and so we have to correct that," Selby said. "It's not just the medication is going to stop them in their tracks. The medication is an aid to assist them to change their behaviours, their environment, etc. that promote smoking."

In British Columbia, a government program provides free nicotine replacement products like the patch. About 60,000 such products have been given at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

The province doesn't track the success rate of the products.

B.C.'s minister of labour and citizens' services, Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid, said the study will be examined to help decide if resources are being used effectively.

Cigarette smoker Alex Davidson in Toronto consumes a pack a day.

"The puffer didn't do anything for me," Davidson said. "The patch oddly enough made me sick. The gum, I was chewing the gum and smoking cigarettes at the same time, so I guess that obviously wasn't protective. There was never anything that replaced 100 per cent whatever calming effect that I think smoking has."

The study was funded by the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

With files from CBC's Melanie Glanz