A groundbreaking Auckland University study has found it is possible to smoke your way to quitting by using virtually nicotine-free cigarettes.
The research found a higher quit rate among heavily addicted smokers offered nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and the cigarettes with hardly any nicotine, than those given just NRT patches, gum or lozenges.
"It's an exciting finding," lead researcher Dr Natalie Walker, of the university's clinical trials research unit, said last night.
People in the "intervention" arm of the trial were given a six-week supply of the low-nicotine Quest brand of tobacco cigarettes and told they could smoke them if needed.
"No matter how hard they try to smoke them, they are not going to get any kick out of it," Dr Walker said, "so what they then do is end up weaning themselves off the cigarettes.
"Part of smoking is the behavioural component of putting something in their mouth and feeling the smoke in their mouth and feeling it come down into their chest - all that ritual around smoking.
These cigarettes help deal with that component.
"The good thing about it is that people naturally stop using them ... after six weeks, or even earlier for some people."
Dr Walker said the study was "a bit controversial, because people think, 'How can you give people cigarettes to quit smoking, it doesn't make sense', but ... these have such a very low level of nicotine".
"They are equally as harmful as any other cigarette, except they are less addictive ... but they are very clearly addressing that behavioural aspect."
The low-nicotine cigarettes are not commercially available to New Zealand smokers.
The policy implications of the trial include possibly adding low-nicotine cigarettes to quit-smoking efforts, and encouraging tobacco manufacturers to supply them.
As part of the Government's goal for New Zealand to be "smokefree" by 2025, the Health Research Council has awarded $5 million to research work which will investigate policies such as introducing low-nicotine, lower-tax cigarettes, and limiting and progressively cutting the amount of tobacco which can be sold.