Nicotine patches may not help smokers to stub out the habit, according to a new study.
Researchers found nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) designed to help people stop smoking - specifically patches and gum - do not appear to be effective in helping smokers quit long-term, even when combined with counselling sessions.
The study was conducted by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the University of Massachusetts in the United States who are now calling for greater regulation of which nicotine products can be sold over the counter.
Lead author Hillel Alpert, a research scientist at HSPH, said: "This study shows that using NRT is no more effective in helping people stop smoking cigarettes in the long-term than trying to quit on one's own."
The researchers followed 787 adult smokers in Massachusetts who had recently quit smoking. They were surveyed over three time periods: 2001-2002, 2003-2004, and 2005-2006 and were asked whether they had used a nicotine replacement therapy in the form of the nicotine patch placed on the skin, nicotine gum, nicotine inhaler, or nasal spray to help them quit, and if so, what was the longest period of time they had used the product continuously.
They were also asked if they had joined a quit-smoking programme or received help from a doctor, counsellor, or other professional.
The results showed that, for each time period, almost a third of recent quitters reported to have relapsed. The researchers found no difference in relapse rate among those who used NRT for more than six weeks, with or without professional counselling. No difference in quitting success with use of NRT was found for either heavy or light smokers.
Mr Alpert said that even though clinical trials have found NRT to be effective, the new findings demonstrate the importance of empirical studies regarding effectiveness when used in the general population.
He added that using public funds to provide NRT to the population at large is of questionable value, particularly when it reduces the amount of money available for smoking interventions shown in previous studies to be effective, such as media campaigns, promotion of no smoking policies, and tobacco price increases.
Smoking cessation medications have been available over the counter for more than a decade.
Co-author Gregory Connolly, director of the Centre for Global Tobacco Control at HSPH, said: "What this study shows is the need to approve only medications that have been proven to be effective in helping smokers quit in the long-term and to lower nicotine in order to reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes."
The study was published online by the journal Tobacco Control.