Relapse prevention interventions for smoking cessation

  • Review
  • Intervention


  • P Hajek,

  • LF Stead,

  • R West,

  • M Jarvis,

  • T Lancaster

Mrs Lindsay Stead, Review Group Co-ordinator, Department of Primary Health Care, University of Oxford, Old Road Campus, Headington, Oxford, OX3 7LF, UK.



Several treatments can help smokers make a successful quit attempt, but many initially successful quitters relapse over time. There are interventions designed to help prevent relapse.


To assess whether specific interventions for relapse prevention reduce the proportion of recent quitters who return to smoking.

Search strategy

We searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction group trials register in September 2004 for studies mentioning relapse prevention or maintenance in title, abstracts or keywords.

Selection criteria

Randomized or quasi-randomized controlled trials of relapse prevention interventions with a minimum follow up of six months. We included smokers who quit on their own, or were undergoing enforced abstinence, or who were participating in treatment programmes. We included trials that compared relapse prevention interventions to a no intervention control, or that compared a cessation programme with additional relapse prevention components to a cessation programme alone.

Data collection and analysis

Studies were screened and data extracted by one author and checked by a second. Disagreements were resolved by discussion or referral to a third author.

Main results

Forty studies met inclusion criteria, but were heterogeneous in terms of populations and interventions. We considered studies that randomized abstainers separately from studies that randomized participants prior to their quit date. We detected no benefit of brief and 'skills-based' relapse prevention interventions for women who had quit smoking due to pregnancy, or for smokers undergoing a period of enforced abstinence. We also failed to detect significant effects in trials in other smokers who had quit on their own or with a formal programme. Amongst trials recruiting smokers and evaluating the effect of additional relapse prevention components we also found no evidence of benefit in any subgroup. We did not find that providing training in skills thought to be needed for relapse avoidance reduced relapse, but most studies did not use experimental designs best suited to the task, and had limited power to detect expected small differences between interventions.

Authors' conclusions

At the moment there is insufficient evidence to support the use of any specific intervention for helping smokers who have successfully quit for a short time to avoid relapse. The verdict is strongest for interventions focusing on identifying and resolving tempting situations, as most studies were concerned with these. There is very little research available regarding other approaches. Until more evidence becomes available it may be more efficient to focus resources on supporting the initial cessation attempt rather than on additional relapse prevention efforts.

Plain language summary

Plain language summary

Insufficient evidence to support the use of any specific intervention for helping smokers who have successfully quit for a short time to avoid relapsing

Some people start smoking again shortly after quitting and are said to have 'relapsed'. Interventions used to help people avoid relapse usually focus on teaching the skills to cope with temptations to smoke. This approach and others have not been shown to be helpful, either for people who quit on their own, or with the help of a cessation treatment, or who quit because they were pregnant or in hospital. Many trials conducted so far have not been of a strong enough design to detect possible small effects.