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Smoking Cessation: Innovative Group Therapy-Centered Support Found to Double Quit Rate

By Sean R. Hosein

October 19, 2012

Surveys have found that tobacco use is common among some HIV-positive people. As much as 40% of some clinic populations have been found to smoke cigarettes. In the time before potent combination anti-HIV therapy (commonly called ART or HAART) became widely available, smoking cessation was not a major concern for HIV-positive people and their health care providers.

In the present era, researchers increasingly expect ART users to have survival rates broadly similar to those of HIV-negative people. However, there are increasing reports of shortened survival among some HIV-positive people due to complications arising from cancers, co-infections and cardiovascular disease. Smoking tobacco elevates the risk for cancers, heart attack and other complications, ultimately worsening quality of life and decreasing lifespan. In one international study of more than 5,000 HIV-positive people, researchers estimated that smoking tobacco was either directly or indirectly responsible for 24% of the deaths that occurred over the long term.

Help for Quitting

Concerned about the harmful impact of smoking and trying to improve ways to help HIV-positive people quit, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, have been conducting studies related to this issue. Their latest study was a randomized controlled trial comparing an intensive group therapy-centered approach to standard advice about quitting.  All participants were offered nicotine replacement therapy. Participants who received intensive group therapy-based support had nearly double the quit rate after three months.

Furthermore, the researchers found that two factors -- loneliness and participants' confidence in their ability to resist the urge to smoke -- were significantly associated with their ability to break free from smoking. The results of this and other studies should encourage clinicians to refine their tobacco-cessation programs for HIV-positive people.


Study Details

Participants in the study were randomly assigned to either enter the intensive program, called Positive Smoke Free (PSF), or receive brief standard counselling. Within the PSF program, participants were divided into small groups of six to eight people. Each group was led by two facilitators, one was an HIV-positive peer and the other was a graduate student of a psychology program. Both facilitators had training about tobacco addiction.

Focus on PSF

PSF is an eight-session intervention based on the Tobacco Dependence Treatment Handbook. The PSF program was created by making modifications to the work in the handbook, so that the concerns of HIV-positive people could be incorporated. These concerns, identified in pilot studies, included the following:

Each group had a weekly 90-minute session. Key issues covered in these meetings including the following:

Smoke-free status was confirmed by the evaluation of the exhaled air of participants for carbon monoxide at several points throughout the study.

Of the 184 people who volunteered for the study, 147 made it through the screening process and were randomly assigned to one of the following groups:

The average profile at the time participants entered the study was as follows:

HIV infection risk factors included the following:

Commonly used substances in the month prior to enrollment in the study were as follows:

Most people had been smokers for more than 30 years, consuming an average of 12 cigarettes daily.


Overall, 21 participants (15%) were able to quit after the three-month program ended, distributed as follows:

Although the outcome of this study is highly promising and likely clinically meaningful -- nearly twice as many PSF participants quit -- the difference in quit rates did not reach statistical significance.

The study team assessed possible reasons that might have influenced people to quit, including the following:

Improvements to the Next Clinical Trial


The PSF program was clearly advantageous in helping people to quit. Researchers found that quit rates were significantly greater among PSF participants if they attended seven or more counselling sessions and also received prescribed therapy to help them quit. Keeping people motivated in any clinical trial is not easy, particularly in trials of smoking cessation. Future trials should consider prescribed medicines for smoking cessation as well as ways to maximize attendance at support group meetings. Additional considerations include the following:

The present study has produced highly promising results and shows that smoking cessation is possible among HIV-positive people who are motivated to quit. Perhaps future studies should be of a longer duration, both to provide more social support for participants and to assess how long they are able to remain smoke free.



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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication CATIE News. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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