Clinician Article

Nicotine receptor partial agonists for smoking cessation.

  • Cahill K
  • Lindson-Hawley N
  • Thomas KH
  • Fanshawe TR
  • Lancaster T
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 May 9;(5):CD006103. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006103.pub7. (Review)
PMID: 27158893
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  • Cardiology
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Psychiatry
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Hospital Doctor/Hospitalists
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Internal Medicine
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • FM/GP/Mental Health
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Public Health
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Respirology/Pulmonology
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: Nicotine receptor partial agonists may help people to stop smoking by a combination of maintaining moderate levels of dopamine to counteract withdrawal symptoms (acting as an agonist) and reducing smoking satisfaction (acting as an antagonist).

OBJECTIVES: To review the efficacy of nicotine receptor partial agonists, including varenicline and cytisine, for smoking cessation.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group's specialised register for trials, using the terms ('cytisine' or 'Tabex' or 'dianicline' or 'varenicline' or 'nicotine receptor partial agonist') in the title or abstract, or as keywords. The register is compiled from searches of MEDLINE, EMBASE, and PsycINFO using MeSH terms and free text to identify controlled trials of interventions for smoking cessation and prevention. We contacted authors of trial reports for additional information where necessary. The latest update of the specialised register was in May 2015, although we have included a few key trials published after this date. We also searched online clinical trials registers.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials which compared the treatment drug with placebo. We also included comparisons with bupropion and nicotine patches where available. We excluded trials which did not report a minimum follow-up period of six months from start of treatment.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We extracted data on the type of participants, the dose and duration of treatment, the outcome measures, the randomisation procedure, concealment of allocation, and completeness of follow-up.The main outcome measured was abstinence from smoking at longest follow-up. We used the most rigorous definition of abstinence, and preferred biochemically validated rates where they were reported. Where appropriate we pooled risk ratios (RRs), using the Mantel-Haenszel fixed-effect model.

MAIN RESULTS: Two trials of cytisine (937 people) found that more participants taking cytisine stopped smoking compared with placebo at longest follow-up, with a pooled risk ratio (RR) of 3.98 (95% confidence interval (CI) 2.01 to 7.87; low-quality evidence). One recent trial comparing cytisine with NRT in 1310 people found a benefit for cytisine at six months (RR 1.43, 95% CI 1.13 to 1.80).One trial of dianicline (602 people) failed to find evidence that it was effective (RR 1.20, 95% CI 0.82 to 1.75). This drug is no longer in development.We identified 39 trials that tested varenicline, 27 of which contributed to the primary analysis (varenicline versus placebo). Five of these trials also included a bupropion treatment arm. Eight trials compared varenicline with nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). Nine studies tested variations in varenicline dosage, and 13 tested usage in disease-specific subgroups of patients. The included studies covered 25,290 participants, 11,801 of whom used varenicline.The pooled RR for continuous or sustained abstinence at six months or longer for varenicline at standard dosage versus placebo was 2.24 (95% CI 2.06 to 2.43; 27 trials, 12,625 people; high-quality evidence). Varenicline at lower or variable doses was also shown to be effective, with an RR of 2.08 (95% CI 1.56 to 2.78; 4 trials, 1266 people). The pooled RR for varenicline versus bupropion at six months was 1.39 (95% CI 1.25 to 1.54; 5 trials, 5877 people; high-quality evidence). The RR for varenicline versus NRT for abstinence at 24 weeks was 1.25 (95% CI 1.14 to 1.37; 8 trials, 6264 people; moderate-quality evidence). Four trials which tested the use of varenicline beyond the 12-week standard regimen found the drug to be well-tolerated during long-term use. The number needed to treat with varenicline for an additional beneficial outcome, based on the weighted mean control rate, is 11 (95% CI 9 to 13). The most commonly reported adverse effect of varenicline was nausea, which was mostly at mild to moderate levels and usually subsided over time. Our analysis of reported serious adverse events occurring during or after active treatment suggests there may be a 25% increase in the chance of SAEs among people using varenicline (RR 1.25; 95% CI 1.04 to 1.49; 29 trials, 15,370 people; high-quality evidence). These events include comorbidities such as infections, cancers and injuries, and most were considered by the trialists to be unrelated to the treatments. There is also evidence of higher losses to follow-up in the control groups compared with the intervention groups, leading to a likely underascertainment of the true rate of SAEs among the controls. Early concerns about a possible association between varenicline and depressed mood, agitation, and suicidal behaviour or ideation led to the addition of a boxed warning to the labelling in 2008. However, subsequent observational cohort studies and meta-analyses have not confirmed these fears, and the findings of the EAGLES trial do not support a causal link between varenicline and neuropsychiatric disorders, including suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviour. The evidence is not conclusive, however, in people with past or current psychiatric disorders. Concerns have also been raised that varenicline may slightly increase cardiovascular events in people already at increased risk of those illnesses. Current evidence neither supports nor refutes such an association, but we await the findings of the CATS trial, which should establish whether or not this is a valid concern.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Cytisine increases the chances of quitting, although absolute quit rates were modest in two recent trials. Varenicline at standard dose increased the chances of successful long-term smoking cessation between two- and three-fold compared with pharmacologically unassisted quit attempts. Lower dose regimens also conferred benefits for cessation, while reducing the incidence of adverse events. More participants quit successfully with varenicline than with bupropion or with NRT. Limited evidence suggests that varenicline may have a role to play in relapse prevention. The most frequently recorded adverse effect of varenicline is nausea, but mostly at mild to moderate levels and tending to subside over time. Early reports of possible links to suicidal ideation and behaviour have not been confirmed by current research.Future trials of cytisine may test extended regimens and more intensive behavioural support.

Clinical Comments


This is a good Cochrane review, about a drug that has been exhaustively investigated - varenicline, which shows to be effective and safe (but waiting for results of the CATS trial, exploring cardiovascular adverse outcomes).

FM/GP/Mental Health

The smoking and smoking cessation has to be taken into consideration from a public health approach. Foremost, the things related to smoking have a huge number of chemicals and their potential effects on the nervous system resulting to sometimes inhibited neural pathways and inflicting change to person's identity at all levels. Much is known about the lead, arsenic, cadmium poisoning to name a few and all this has to be dealt with in solving the smoking issue.


As a neurologist, I would suggest my collegues to recommend this medication for smokers who want to stop smoking.


The lack of evidence regarding suicides with varenicline was relevant.

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