Smoking cessation medicines and e-cigarettes: a systematic review, network meta-analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis

Health Technol Assess. 2021 Oct;25(59):1-224. doi: 10.3310/hta25590.


Background: Cigarette smoking is one of the leading causes of early death. Varenicline [Champix (UK), Pfizer Europe MA EEIG, Brussels, Belgium; or Chantix (USA), Pfizer Inc., Mission, KS, USA], bupropion (Zyban; GlaxoSmithKline, Brentford, UK) and nicotine replacement therapy are licensed aids for quitting smoking in the UK. Although not licensed, e-cigarettes may also be used in English smoking cessation services. Concerns have been raised about the safety of these medicines and e-cigarettes.

Objectives: To determine the clinical effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness of smoking cessation medicines and e-cigarettes.

Design: Systematic reviews, network meta-analyses and cost-effectiveness analysis informed by the network meta-analysis results.

Setting: Primary care practices, hospitals, clinics, universities, workplaces, nursing or residential homes.

Participants: Smokers aged ≥ 18 years of all ethnicities using UK-licensed smoking cessation therapies and/or e-cigarettes.

Interventions: Varenicline, bupropion and nicotine replacement therapy as monotherapies and in combination treatments at standard, low or high dose, combination nicotine replacement therapy and e-cigarette monotherapies.

Main outcome measures: Effectiveness - continuous or sustained abstinence. Safety - serious adverse events, major adverse cardiovascular events and major adverse neuropsychiatric events.

Data sources: Ten databases, reference lists of relevant research articles and previous reviews. Searches were performed from inception until 16 March 2017 and updated on 19 February 2019.

Review methods: Three reviewers screened the search results. Data were extracted and risk of bias was assessed by one reviewer and checked by the other reviewers. Network meta-analyses were conducted for effectiveness and safety outcomes. Cost-effectiveness was evaluated using an amended version of the Benefits of Smoking Cessation on Outcomes model.

Results: Most monotherapies and combination treatments were more effective than placebo at achieving sustained abstinence. Varenicline standard plus nicotine replacement therapy standard (odds ratio 5.75, 95% credible interval 2.27 to 14.90) was ranked first for sustained abstinence, followed by e-cigarette low (odds ratio 3.22, 95% credible interval 0.97 to 12.60), although these estimates have high uncertainty. We found effect modification for counselling and dependence, with a higher proportion of smokers who received counselling achieving sustained abstinence than those who did not receive counselling, and higher odds of sustained abstinence among participants with higher average dependence scores. We found that bupropion standard increased odds of serious adverse events compared with placebo (odds ratio 1.27, 95% credible interval 1.04 to 1.58). There were no differences between interventions in terms of major adverse cardiovascular events. There was evidence of increased odds of major adverse neuropsychiatric events for smokers randomised to varenicline standard compared with those randomised to bupropion standard (odds ratio 1.43, 95% credible interval 1.02 to 2.09). There was a high level of uncertainty about the most cost-effective intervention, although all were cost-effective compared with nicotine replacement therapy low at the £20,000 per quality-adjusted life-year threshold. E-cigarette low appeared to be most cost-effective in the base case, followed by varenicline standard plus nicotine replacement therapy standard. When the impact of major adverse neuropsychiatric events was excluded, varenicline standard plus nicotine replacement therapy standard was most cost-effective, followed by varenicline low plus nicotine replacement therapy standard. When limited to licensed interventions in the UK, nicotine replacement therapy standard was most cost-effective, followed by varenicline standard.

Limitations: Comparisons between active interventions were informed almost exclusively by indirect evidence. Findings were imprecise because of the small numbers of adverse events identified.

Conclusions: Combined therapies of medicines are among the most clinically effective, safe and cost-effective treatment options for smokers. Although the combined therapy of nicotine replacement therapy and varenicline at standard doses was the most effective treatment, this is currently unlicensed for use in the UK.

Future work: Researchers should examine the use of these treatments alongside counselling and continue investigating the long-term effectiveness and safety of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation compared with active interventions such as nicotine replacement therapy.

Study registration: This study is registered as PROSPERO CRD42016041302.

Funding: This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment programme and will be published in full in Health Technology Assessment; Vol. 25, No. 59. See the NIHR Journals Library website for further project information.


Plain Language Summary

Cigarette smoking is one of the main causes of early death both in the UK and worldwide. Three medicines, varenicline, bupropion and nicotine replacement therapy, are licensed in the UK to help people stop smoking. E-cigarettes can also be used as a stop smoking aid. We combined information from previous studies, including clinical trials, to determine which product was the safest, most effective and best value for money for the NHS. We compared treatments that were given alone as well as treatments that were combined with others, such as combination nicotine replacement therapy, varenicline combined with nicotine replacement therapy, varenicline combined with bupropion and bupropion combined with nicotine replacement therapy. The last three combined treatments are not currently licensed in the UK for smoking cessation. We also compared different treatment doses (low, high and standard doses). We found that most treatments were more effective than placebo in helping people to quit smoking. One of the combination treatments (varenicline at standard dose combined with nicotine replacement therapy at standard dose) was the most effective at getting people to quit smoking, followed by e-cigarette at low dose, varenicline at standard dose combined with bupropion at standard dose, and e-cigarette at high dose. We also found that smokers with higher tobacco dependence and smokers treated with counselling alongside medicines achieved a higher proportion of continuous quitting. We also found evidence that the standard dose of bupropion was associated with an increased risk of serious side effects compared with placebo. There was inconclusive evidence that any of the treatments increased the risk of major cardiovascular side effects. There was some evidence that smokers who received a standard dose of varenicline had an increased risk of major neurological and psychiatric side effects compared with those receiving a standard dose of bupropion. E-cigarette at low dose, varenicline standard plus nicotine replacement therapy standard and varenicline standard plus bupropion standard were the best value for money interventions, but further clinical trials comparing treatments against each other are needed to increase confidence in these findings.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems*
  • Humans
  • Network Meta-Analysis
  • Smoking Cessation*
  • Tobacco Use Cessation Devices
  • Varenicline / adverse effects


  • Varenicline