MONDAY, Jan. 25, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Helping smokers quit may be as easy as mailing them free nicotine-replacement patches, even in the absence of counseling or other support, a new Canadian study shows.
The finding didn't surprise one expert in lung health, Dr. Len Horovitz.
"Sometimes smokers simply need access to help and a jumpstart," said Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
In the study, a team led by John Cunningham at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto randomly sent nicotine-replacement patches to smokers who had said they were interested in quitting.
The researchers mailed a five-week course of nicotine patches to 500 people free of charge. The smokers were not offered any behavioral assistance -- for example, counseling -- to enhance their quitting efforts. The smokers averaged 48 years of age.
The participants' self-reported 30-day abstinence from smoking after six months was more than twice as high as that of 499 similar smokers who had not received the free nicotine patches, the study found.
To help make sure the participants were being truthful about quitting, about half returned usable saliva samples, which enabled the researchers to confirm abstinence at six months.
Quit rates were still low, but were higher in people who'd gotten the free patches, Cunningham's team reported.
Overall, 2.8 percent of the smokers who received the patches had not smoked for the past six months (based on the saliva test), compared to 1 percent of those who didn't have the therapy.
Dr. Patricia Folan directs the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y. She said that a smoker's decision to try and quit is a crucial first step.
"Both groups in this study, whether they received patches or not, were interested in quitting," she said. "Perhaps the receipt of the free patches was the added incentive needed to actually make the attempt and succeed. The patches may have tipped the scales in favor of trying to quit at a time of great readiness for these smokers."
Most smokers do want to rid themselves of the cancer-causing habit, Folan added.
"Seventy percent of smokers say they want to quit, but not all are willing to seek out coaching/counseling or have access to such help," she explained. "Providing patches via mail may be an alternative method of quitting for some highly motivated smokers, ready to quit."
The study was published Jan. 25 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
Cunningham's team cautioned, however, that because it had recruited participants by dialing random phone numbers, the findings don't yet make a case for the effectiveness of mass distribution of patches.
"However, the results of the trial provide general support for direct-to-smoker programs with free mailed nicotine patches," the researchers wrote.
The American Cancer Society provides more information on nicotine replacement therapy.