Patients with serious illnesses, who account for a disproportionately high segment of current smokers, are also among the most addicted to tobacco use. However, a new study from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) finds that despite their strong addiction, more than one third of these patients are likely to give up smoking and remain smoke-free for at least 6 months if they receive a combination of smoking cessation medications and are allowed to continue taking these medications for a longer period of time.

“Common sense would tell you to quit smoking if you have a serious disease, but more than half of smokers who are newly diagnosed with cancer continue to smoke,” says study author Michael Steinberg, MD, MPH, director of the Tobacco Dependence Program at the UMDNJ-School of Public Health. “Our research illustrates how terribly addictive tobacco is, but that addiction can be overcome if treated appropriately.”

The researchers conducted the study by randomly assigning 127 smokers with predefined medical conditions to one of two groups. The first group received nicotine patches for a standard 10-week treatment period, while the second group received a combination of nicotine patches, nicotine inhalers, and bupropion (an antidepressant medication commonly prescribed for treating tobacco dependence). After 26 weeks, 35% of those who received the combination therapy had quit smoking compared to just 19% of those who received the nicotine patch alone.

Steinberg believes that the current product labeling that discourages combining nicotine patches with other forms of nicotine replacement and strictly limits the recommended length of time these products should be used is a mistake. At the same time, Steinberg believes treatment for tobacco dependence should be reimbursed well by insurance companies.

“People with serious illnesses who smoke will live longer and have a better quality of life if they receive aggressive treatment for their tobacco dependence,” says Steinberg in a release about the study. “Insurance companies will bristle at paying for 6 months of nicotine therapy but will turn around and allow benefits for 50 years of prescription statin medications to control cholesterol. Tobacco dependence should be considered like any other chronic illness, and, with the right amount of therapy, people can remain tobacco-free for good.”

The results of this study appear in the Annals of Internal Medicine.