Smokers who want to wean themselves from cigarettes rather than quit all at once may benefit from using nicotine gum, a new study suggests.

Nicotine-replacement therapy (NRT) has long been used to help smokers kick the habit, but only for smokers who are willing to quit abruptly. The new study looked at whether nicotine gum can also help smokers quit gradually — a route, research indicates, most people would prefer.

Researchers found that among nearly 3,300 smokers who wanted to quit gradually, those who were randomly assigned to use nicotine gum as they cut down on cigarettes were more successful than those who were given an inactive, placebo gum.

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Though most study participants failed to quit completely, those who used the nicotine gum were more successful — with 26 percent achieving total abstinence within eight weeks of treatment, compared with 18 percent in the placebo group.

Among those quitters, nicotine-gum users were more than twice as likely to stay continuously abstinent for a month afterward — 10 percent, versus 4 percent of those in the placebo group.

They had similarly better odds of staying cigarette-free for six months, the researchers report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Six percent of nicotine-gum users were continuously abstinent for six months, while the same was true of 2 percent of smokers in the placebo group.

Those quit rates "appear modest," but the study participants received no behavioral counseling or other help beyond the nicotine gum, note the researchers, led by Dr. Saul Shiffman of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

Moreover, they add, the success rate was similar to what's been seen in studies of smokers who quit altogether once they start using nicotine gum.

"This expands treatment options for the substantial proportion of smokers who prefer quitting gradually, who have relatively low chances of quitting, and who have heretofore been implicitly excluded from the use of NRT to help them quit," Shiffman and his colleagues write.

The study was funded by GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, which makes NRT products. Shiffman and a co-researcher serve as consultants to the company.