Once a smoker expresses an interest and willingness to begin treatment, the next step is to assess their smoking habits and level of nicotine dependence in order to determine the right Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) dose. A full assessment should include:133
- Degree of nicotine dependence
- Frequency of nicotine use
- Products used
- History of previous quit attempts
STEP 1. Determine the level of nicotine dependence
The Modified Fagerström Nicotine Tolerance Scale is a quick tool to assess a patient’s level of nicotine dependence to help determine the initial dose of NRT. It measures a patient’s degree of nicotine dependence, which helps predict how difficult quitting will be and, therefore, how intense treatment should be.133
Questions to ask your patients:134
- How soon after you wake up do you smoke your first cigarette?
- Do you find it difficult to refrain from smoking in places where it is forbidden?
- Which cigarette would you hate most to give up?
- How many cigarettes per day do you smoke?
- Do you smoke more during the first hours of waking than during the rest of the day?
- Do you smoke even when you are ill enough to be in bed most of the day?
The patient is given a score of 1-10, where 1 is the lowest degree of nicotine dependence and 10 is the highest. If the patient’s score indicates a moderate to high level of dependence (5 or greater), pharmacotherapy plus behavioural therapy is warranted.134 Learn how to score the Fagerström Scale
STEP 2. Assess tobacco use history and prior quit attempts
The next step is to determine how many cigarettes a patient smokes a day75 and how long they have been smoking.135 It is also important to document the use of any other tobacco products such as cigars, pipes, and electronic cigarettes.133
Other relevant questions to ask:
- Where do you smoke most often?
- Do you smoke socially or alone (or both)?
- Have you made any previous attempts to quit, and if so, how many and what methods were used (e.g. willpower alone [“cold turkey”], NRT, prescription medications)?
Consider probing further to determine the patient’s perception of the cause of relapse and which methods they feel worked best for them.135
Getting patients started on Combination NRT
Combination NRT (long-acting nicotine patch + rapid-acting oral form of NRT) yields among the highest abstinence rates* compared to other pharmacological interventions.109 Combination NRT therapy should be encouraged when quitting with monotherapy has not been successful.113,114
Long-acting NRT (patch) reduces background cravings + Rapid-acting NRT (gum, lozenge, inhaler or spray) helps alleviate breakthrough cravings and provides sensory stimulation
Combining NRT formulations allows the patient to tailor therapy as needed based on specific environmental or emotional triggers. Learn more about Combination NRT
To determine the right NRT format, a patient’s preferences and history of previous quit attempts should be taken into account. Below is a summary of key factors to consider for each format:136
- Delivers a continuous release of nicotine, providing constant withdrawal relief over 24 hours, making it the simplest to use
- Compliance might be more straightforward; however, the patient cannot adjust the nicotine dose in response to sudden cravings and triggers
- For patients who want more control of their dose or for those who smoke only in certain situations or in response to certain triggers, adding one of the oral formats could be very beneficial
- One of the most commonly used rapid-acting NRT forms
- Provides peak nicotine levels in just 25 minutes, so is effective in relieving breakthrough cravings
- To be effective and avoid excess side effects, proper chewing technique (“chew and park”) is required
- In patients with poor dentition and those with dental appliances, other rapid-acting formats such as the lozenge or spray may be more appropriate
- Comparable pharmacokinetic profile to the gum
- Simpler to use than the gum, so is an option for patients in which proper chewing technique is unreliable
- Helps manage breakthrough cravings
- Dissolves completely in the mouth
- Addresses the physical dependence of smoking and the sensory and behavioural aspects of smoking, so is an excellent option for patients who are attached to the hand-to-mouth ritual of smoking
- Instant-release mouth spray
- Most rapid-acting NRT format
- Gets to work on cravings in just 60 seconds, so is very effective in relieving breakthrough urges to smoke
Determining the right dose of Combination NRT
- If strong cravings return when attempting downward titration of the NRT patch, consider advising patients to remain at the higher dose for longer
- NRT can be used for 10-12 weeks or longer if necessary
- Oral formats can be used after discontinuation of NRT patch, as required113