A Vaccine to Quit Smoking?

If you've been paying attention to the news, you may have read about a quit smoking injection designed to help people quit smoking.  It's called NicVAX, and it's being developed by Nabi Biopharmaceuticals.  It's not available yet - the manufacturer is still conducting clinical trials to show whether or not it works, in order to get it approved by the FDA.  However, I'll review the information that's available now, so you know what's coming down the pipeline.  Technically, it is a 'vaccine' since it works by stimulating antibody production. 


Generally I use meta analytic research to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of a drug treatment, because this technique combines the outcomes from several research studies to draw the most accurate conclusion possible.  However, since the quit smoking injection hasn't been FDA approved yet, the only research that is available is what has been done by the manufacturer so far as they collect data to be used in the process of getting it approved by the FDA.

Here's what that research shows so far

Overall, comparing people who got the most effective dose and dosing schedule of NicVAX, a little more than twice as many were able to quit and stay quit compared to people who got a placebo or 'fake' shot to quit smoking.  This is about the same as most of the other quit smoking products that show any sign of effectiveness. 

Specifically, about 6% of people who received a placebo (fake shot) stayed quit for a year, compared to around 16% of people who got the real quit smoking shot.  It's worth noting that the vaccine was more helpful for some people than for others.  When they compared people on the basis of who showed the greatest antibody effect (which is the mechanism of action for this vaccine), the top third showed about a 16% success rate compared to the bottom two-thirds, which showed a rate of about 8% - not significantly different from the rate of 6% for the placebo group. 

If you look at only the people who received the most effective dose and schedule, the results are a little more encouraging: 21% compared to 13%, vs. 6% for the placebo group.  However, at this point in the research it's not possible to tell whether the difference between the bottom two thirds (13%) and the placebo group (6%) are just due to random variation, or if they really reflect the effectiveness of the vaccine.  Hopefully more research will help to clarify this.

If you'd like to take a look at the data presented by the manufacturer at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in November 2007, you can see that here:  quit smoking vaccine presentation.

My conclusions

Based on the research so far, it looks like the quit smoking shot can actually make a difference for some people, but the percentages overall are still pretty low - in other words, this quit smoking injection, if/when it becomes available, will not be a magic bullet - it won't make quitting 'effortless.'  It may help some people quit smoking, but you'll still have the best chance if you combine it with other techniques, including a method to help deal with the psychological and behavioral aspect of quitting.