A plant extract’s better than patches for quitting smoking

Smoking’s a tough habit to break, but scientists have found a new way to make giving up the cancer sticks a little easier. According to a new study reported in New Scientist, a plant extract called cytisine is actually more effective than nicotine patches or gum at helping people to quit.

It’s taken from the laburnum tree, which grows across Europe. It’s toxic at high doses, but low amounts have been used as a stop smoking aid since the 1960s, mostly in Bulgaria and Poland, where tablets containing the extract are produced. An early trial showing its effectiveness back in the 70s didn’t meet European or US standards so its potential benefits were ignored for decades.

Then, in 2011, Robert West from University College London found that compared to a placebo, smokers taking cytisine were three times more likely to quit. And now researchers in New Zealand have compared it to two of the most common smoking cessation tools, nicotine patches and gum. A team from the University of Auckland’s National Institute for Health Innovation recruited 1310 participants, all of whom smoked but wanted to stop. Half were given cytisine tablets for 25 days, in decreasing amounts, while half had nicotine replacement patches, gum or lozenges for two months.

During the trial, people taking cytisine were less likely to have smoked, and after six months, 143 people in the cytisine group were smoke-free, compared to 100 in the nicotine replacement group. The plant extract did come with a few more side effects, including nausea and insomnia, but the majority of participants who found it helpful said they’d recommend it regardless.

Rather than replacing nicotine and gradually reducing the amount, as traditional over-the-counter products do, cytisine blocks nicotine’s mood-boosting effects in the brain. And it’s far cheaper than traditional smoking cessation aids, meaning it could be especially helpful in developing countries, or anywhere that expects patients to shoulder most of the cost of medication.

Robert West says this is a huge breakthrough: ‘I think this is the biggest news in smoking cessation treatment ever,’ He told New Scientist. ‘Here is a pill that can be produced for next to nothing, that can be bought by even the poorest smoker in India, and that can save literally millions of lives.’

Image via Image via Fried Dough’s Flickr.

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