Long-term nicotine replacement therapy: cancer risk in context

Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2011 Nov;4(11):1719-23. doi: 10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-11-0453.


Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) for up to 12 weeks is well established, safe and efficacious for fostering smoking cessation. Some smokers at a high risk of relapse may benefit from long-term use, and so long-term NRT safety and efficacy have become a paramount question for the FDA and others. Laboratory studies have indicated a carcinogenic potential of nicotine. Animal model studies reported in this issue of the journal by Maier and colleagues (beginning on page 1743) and Murphy and colleagues (beginning on page 1752), however, provide additional reassurance that NRT does not promote lung cancer. Very long-term studies of NRT effects do not yet exist and would be needed to definitively answer the question about NRT efficacy and cancer risk and some decision making will need to be made based on limited human data and experimental studies. The overall NRT safety question is complex and requires consideration of three contexts and comparator groups (long-term NRT/abstinence vs. smoking, long-term intermittent NRT/reduced smoking vs. smoking, and long-term NRT/abstinence vs. abstinence without long-term NRT). Although the data on these issues are insufficient, the first comparison seems intuitive and may be compelling enough to allow the FDA to approve a long-term indication for NRT. An important public health goal is to help smokers and their health care providers understand the implications of potential long-term NRT risks in the context of its potential benefits and the far greater risks of continued smoking.

Publication types

  • Comment

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma / etiology*
  • Adenoma / drug therapy*
  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / toxicity*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / pathology*
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Lung Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Male
  • Mutation / genetics*
  • Nicotine / administration & dosage*
  • Nitrosamines / toxicity*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras) / genetics*


  • Carcinogens
  • Nitrosamines
  • Nicotine
  • 4-(N-methyl-N-nitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone
  • Hras protein, mouse
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins p21(ras)