Can people be helped to stop smoking before they have surgery?

Smoking is a well-known risk factor for complications after surgery. Stopping smoking before surgery is likely to reduce the risk of complications. We reviewed the evidence about the effects of providing smoking cessation interventions to people awaiting surgery on their success in quitting at the time of surgery and longer-term, and at complications following surgery. The evidence is current to January 2014.

We searched for randomized studies enrolling people who smoked and were awaiting any type of planned surgery. The trials tested interventions to encourage and help them to stop smoking before surgery. Interventions could include any type of support, including written materials, brief advice, counselling, medications such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) or varenicline, and combinations of different methods. The control could be usual care or a less intensive intervention.

We found 13 studies which met the inclusion requirements. The overall quality of evidence was moderate, limited by the small number of studies contributing to key analyses. Participants were awaiting a range of different types of surgery. Interventions differed in their intensity, and in how long before surgery they began. Both brief (seven trials, 1141 participants) and intensive (two trials, 210 participants) behavioural interventions were effective in increasing the proportion of smokers who were not smoking at the time they had surgery. The two trials using intensive interventions which started four to eight weeks before surgery had larger effects. Six trials of behavioural interventions assessed postoperative complications. Both trials of intensive interventions (210 participants) detected a reduction in complications in people receiving intervention, but the combined results of the four trials of brief interventions did not show a significant benefit. Only four trials of behavioural interventions followed up participants at twelve months. The two intensive interventions (209 participants) reduced the number of people smoking but the two brief interventions (341 participants) no longer showed a difference in the number of smokers. One trial of varenicline (286 participants), a pharmacotherapy shown to assist quitting in other groups of smokers, showed a benefit on cessation after twelve months, but did not show a benefit at the time of surgery or affect complications. In this trial smokers were only asked to stop the day before surgery.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is evidence that preoperative smoking interventions providing behavioural support and offering NRT increase short-term smoking cessation and may reduce postoperative morbidity. One trial of varenicline begun shortly before surgery has shown a benefit on long-term cessation but did not detect an effect on early abstinence or on postoperative complications. The optimal preoperative intervention intensity remains unknown. Based on indirect comparisons and evidence from two small trials, interventions that begin four to eight weeks before surgery, include weekly counselling and use NRT are more likely to have an impact on complications and on long-term smoking cessation.

Read the full abstract...

Smokers have a substantially increased risk of postoperative complications. Preoperative smoking intervention may be effective in decreasing this incidence, and surgery may constitute a unique opportunity for smoking cessation interventions.


The objectives of this review are to assess the effect of preoperative smoking intervention on smoking cessation at the time of surgery and 12 months postoperatively, and on the incidence of postoperative complications.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group Specialized Register in January 2014.

Selection criteria: 

Randomized controlled trials that recruited people who smoked prior to surgery, offered a smoking cessation intervention, and measured preoperative and long-term abstinence from smoking or the incidence of postoperative complications or both outcomes.

Data collection and analysis: 

The review authors independently assessed studies to determine eligibility, and discussed the results between them.

Main results: 

Thirteen trials enrolling 2010 participants met the inclusion criteria. One trial did not report cessation as an outcome. Seven reported some measure of postoperative morbidity. Most studies were judged to be at low risk of bias but the overall quality of evidence was moderate due to the small number of studies contributing to each comparison.

Ten trials evaluated the effect of behavioural support on cessation at the time of surgery; nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) was offered or recommended to some or all participants in eight of these. Two trials initiated multisession face-to-face counselling at least four weeks before surgery and were classified as intensive interventions, whilst seven used a brief intervention. One further study provided an intensive intervention to both groups, with the intervention group additionally receiving a computer-based scheduled reduced smoking intervention. One placebo-controlled trial examined the effect of varenicline administered one week preoperatively followed by 11 weeks postoperative treatment, and one placebo-controlled trial examined the effect of nicotine lozenges from the night before surgery as an adjunct to brief counselling at the preoperative evaluation. There was evidence of heterogeneity between the effects of trials using intensive and brief interventions, so we pooled these separately. An effect on cessation at the time of surgery was apparent in both subgroups, but the effect was larger for intensive intervention (pooled risk ratio (RR) 10.76; 95% confidence interval (CI) 4.55 to 25.46, two trials, 210 participants) than for brief interventions (RR 1.30; 95% CI 1.16 to 1.46, 7 trials, 1141 participants). A single trial did not show evidence of benefit of a scheduled reduced smoking intervention. Neither nicotine lozenges nor varenicline were shown to increase cessation at the time of surgery but both had wide confidence intervals (RR 1.34; 95% CI 0.86 to 2.10 (1 trial, 46 participants) and RR 1.49; 95% CI 0.98 to 2.26 (1 trial, 286 participants) respectively). Four of these trials evaluated long-term smoking cessation and only the intensive intervention retained a significant effect (RR 2.96; 95% CI 1.57 to 5.55, 2 trials, 209 participants), whilst there was no evidence of a long-term effect following a brief intervention (RR 1.09; 95% CI 0.68 to 1.75, 2 trials, 341 participants). The trial of varenicline did show a significant effect on long-term smoking cessation (RR 1.45; 95% CI 1.01 to 2.07, 1 trial, 286 participants).

Seven trials examined the effect of smoking intervention on postoperative complications. As with smoking outcomes, there was evidence of heterogeneity between intensive and brief behavioural interventions. In subgroup analyses there was a significant effect of intensive intervention on any complications (RR 0.42; 95% CI 0.27 to 0.65, 2 trials, 210 participants) and on wound complications (RR 0.31; 95% CI 0.16 to 0.62, 2 trials, 210 participants). For brief interventions, where the impact on smoking had been smaller, there was no evidence of a reduction in complications (RR 0.92; 95% CI 0.72 to 1.19, 4 trials, 493 participants) for any complication (RR 0.99; 95% CI 0.70 to 1.40, 3 trials, 325 participants) for wound complications. The trial of varenicline did not detect an effect on postoperative complications (RR 0.94; 95% CI 0.52 to 1.72, 1 trial, 286 participants).