New UW–Madison study shows people who fail to quit smoking should immediately try again

By Laurel White

People who immediately try again to quit smoking after a failed attempt are more successful than people who take time before another try, according to a new UW–Madison study. 

The multi-year study, published this week in Addiction, analyzed the experiences of more than 1,100 people attempting to quit smoking. It found more than 80% of relapsed individuals who were encouraged to immediately try again made another quit attempt, compared to just 56% of people who were offered a one-month break from trying to quit. 


Tanya Schlam, an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, is the lead author of the study. Schlam says the findings are an important step toward helping more people successfully kick an unwanted and unhealthy habit. 

“Most people who smoke want to quit but often need to make multiple quit attempts before they succeed,” Schlam said. “Our findings give medical professionals more information about how to best support patients who smoke: encourage them to make another new quit attempt as soon as they feel ready (and to use stop smoking medicine and counseling to help them quit).” 

Schlam teaches in the School of Education’s Health Promotion and Health Equity program and is an affiliate at the UW Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention (UW-CTRI). Her co-authors on the study include Daniel Bolt, a professor in the School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, as well as several colleagues from UW-CTRI, the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Michigan, New York University, and University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute. It began by providing roughly 1,100 individuals who smoke with cessation counseling and 8 weeks of access to nicotine patches. Roughly 725 of the participants relapsed to smoking during that treatment. Of those who relapsed, some were encouraged to immediately try quitting again and others were offered a more gradual plan aimed at preparing them to attempt quitting again in the future. The study found more than 80% of individuals who were encouraged to immediately try again entered a new treatment plan with a goal of quitting, compared to about 56% of individuals who were given a one-month break and counseling aimed at reducing smoking, as well as medication in the form of nicotine lozenges.

Schlam says the sharp difference in outcomes could be chalked up to dwindling motivation to quit as several weeks passed. 

“Participants may have simply lost momentum for quitting due to time passing, or due to substituting a reduction goal for a quitting goal, or perhaps both,” she said.

Schlam also pointed out the immediate intervention not only appears to be more effective at keeping people who smoke engaged with quitting, but more cost effective as well. 

“Additional treatment aimed at preparing people to quit smoking takes time and money, while encouraging immediate action cuts out those expenses,” she explained. 

Broadly, Schlam’s research focuses on behavior change and has included the study and development of novel treatments for smoking cessation, including mobile health interventions. She says her work aims to help people develop the behavioral and cognitive skills to lead as healthy lives as possible, despite societal, environmental, interpersonal, and psychological challenges.

Read the full text of her new study, “What to Do After Smoking Relapse? A Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial of Chronic Care Smoking Treatments,” here

Note for media: Schlam is available for interviews on the study and related subjects upon request. Please contact Laurel White at for more information. 

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