When Smokers Relapse, Should They Try Again Right Away?

If at first someone can’t succeed at quitting smoking, they should not only try, try again—but immediately, according to new research from the University of Wisconsin published in the journal Addiction.

Their doctors shouldn’t be afraid to encourage them to retry quitting immediately, said lead author Dr. Tanya Schlam, a UW professor and researcher.

“Most people in the study who didn’t quit smoking were not super discouraged,” Schlam said, “and were willing to try again.”

The UW research tested two different approaches to recovery after a failed attempt to quit smoking. They split 437 participants into two groups.

“In one group, we recommended waiting at least a month before trying to quit smoking again,” Schlam said, which they called the Preparation group.

“In the other group, we told them, ‘if you feel ready, we encourage you to try to quit smoking again as soon as possible,’” which they called the Recycling group because they reused their quit attempt techniques right away.

Should smokers make a long-term plan or start again right away after they relapse?

More than 80 percent of participants in the Recycling group entered treatment to make a new quit attempt, whereas only about 56 percent of Preparation participants did so. The treatment, as is recommended, consisted of both stop smoking medicine and counseling.

Asking people to dive back into the attempt to quit, to essentially pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again, turned out to be easier and less expensive than waiting. This could be due to loss of momentum over time, Schlam said.

This graphic shows how 83% of the people asked to try again right away made a quit attempt, while only half of those who were asked to wait eventually made a quit attempt.

“Sometimes, medical professionals are hesitant to ask patients if they’d be interested in quitting smoking,” Schlam said, “and to ask them to consider quitting again after they relapse. But most of our study participants were up for it, and that’s great news. We needed to know how to help them. Now we know the answer is not to wait.

“Sometimes people think they need to wait to quit until all the conditions are perfect, but it turns out that’s rarely if ever the case. Think about it: When will you ever have no stress? So just going for it tends to work better.”


Schlam TR, Baker TB, Piper ME, Cook JW, Smith SS, Zwaga D, Jorenby DE, Almirall D, Bolt DM, Collins LM, Mermelstein R, Fiore MC. What to Do After Smoking Relapse? A Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial of Chronic Care Smoking Treatments. Addiction.

Contact Chris Hollenback, University of Wisconsin, 608-417-9047