Q

uitting smoking cold turkey works better than gradually weaning yourself off cigarettes in anticipation of stopping on a future date. A study of nearly 700 smokers published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 22 percent of those who quit cold turkey were still cigarette-free six months after their quit date. That was true for only 15.5 percent of those who had gradually cut back.

Why it matters:

Patients are constantly asking doctors how best to quit; until now, official guidelines have generally suggested cold turkey, but the data have been conflicting, said Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a smoking cessation expert at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is one of the first studies to randomly assign smokers to two different quitting strategies and compare their outcomes.

You’ll want to know:

Before their quit date, both groups were given nicotine patches. Those trying to wean themselves off cigarettes also used nicotine gums, lozenges, or under-the-tongue tablets to keep their withdrawal in check. Even so, many simply did not end up quitting as planned.

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“It’s a bit like going into a cold swimming pool. By the time you get to your nether regions, you have had enough,” said Robert West, a psychologist at University College London, and one of the authors of the paper.

But keep in mind:

Reducing your number of cigarettes isn’t as good for you as quitting outright, but it’s still a useful step. The best course of action, experts say, is to ask for help from your doctor.

“People are a lot more successful at quitting smoking if they do go to a health professional and use nicotine replacement therapy. If they just try to quit on their own without support, the rates are generally a lot lower, around 5 percent,” said Nicola Lindson-Hawley, an addictions specialist at University of Oxford, and the lead author of the study.

The bottom line:

Go see your doctor to get help (and nicotine replacement therapy). Cold turkey is the most effective way to quit, but reducing your number of cigarettes is still better than nothing.

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