Do opioid antagonists such as naltrexone help people to stop smoking?

Opioid antagonists are a type of drug which blunts the effects of narcotics such as heroin and morphine, and might help reduce nicotine addiction by blocking some of the rewarding effects of smoking. Our review identified eight trials of naltrexone, a long-acting opioid antagonist. The trials included over 1200 smokers. Half the trials gave everyone nicotine replacement therapy and tested whether naltrexone had any additional benefit. Compared to a placebo, naltrexone did not increase the proportion of people who had stopped smoking, at the end of treatment, or at six months or more after treatment, either on its own or added to NRT. The available evidence does not suggest that opioid antagonists such as naltrexone assist smoking cessation.

Authors' conclusions: 

Based on data from eight trials and over 1200 individuals, there was no evidence of an effect of naltrexone alone or as an adjunct to NRT on long-term smoking abstinence, with a point estimate strongly suggesting no effect and confidence intervals that make a clinically important effect of treatment unlikely. Although further trials might narrow the confidence intervals they are unlikely to be a good use of resources.

Read the full abstract...

The reinforcing properties of nicotine may be mediated through release of various neurotransmitters both centrally and systemically. People who smoke report positive effects such as pleasure, arousal, and relaxation as well as relief of negative affect, tension, and anxiety. Opioid (narcotic) antagonists are of particular interest to investigators as potential agents to attenuate the rewarding effects of cigarette smoking.


To evaluate the efficacy of opioid antagonists in promoting long-term smoking cessation. The drugs include naloxone and the longer-acting opioid antagonist naltrexone.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group Specialised Register for trials of naloxone, naltrexone and other opioid antagonists and conducted an additional search of MEDLINE using 'Narcotic antagonists' and smoking terms in April 2013. We also contacted investigators, when possible, for information on unpublished studies.

Selection criteria: 

We considered randomised controlled trials comparing opioid antagonists to placebo or an alternative therapeutic control for smoking cessation. We included in the meta-analysis only those trials which reported data on abstinence for a minimum of six months. We also reviewed, for descriptive purposes, results from short-term laboratory-based studies of opioid antagonists designed to evaluate psycho-biological mediating variables associated with nicotine dependence.

Data collection and analysis: 

We extracted data in duplicate on the study population, the nature of the drug therapy, the outcome measures, method of randomisation, and completeness of follow-up. The main outcome measure was abstinence from smoking after at least six months follow-up in patients smoking at baseline. Abstinence at end of treatment was a secondary outcome. We extracted cotinine- or carbon monoxide-verified abstinence where available. Where appropriate, we performed meta-analysis, pooling risk ratios using a Mantel-Haenszel fixed-effect model.

Main results: 

Eight trials of naltrexone met inclusion criteria for meta-analysis of long-term cessation. One trial used a factorial design so five trials compared naltrexone versus placebo and four trials compared naltrexone plus nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) versus placebo plus NRT. Results from 250 participants in one long-term trial remain unpublished. No significant difference was detected between naltrexone and placebo (risk ratio (RR) 1.00; 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.66 to 1.51, 445 participants), or between naltrexone and placebo as an adjunct to NRT (RR 0.95; 95% CI 0.70 to 1.30, 768 participants). The estimate was similar when all eight trials were pooled (RR 0.97; 95% CI 0.76 to 1.24, 1213 participants). In a secondary analysis of abstinence at end of treatment, there was also no evidence of any early treatment effect, (RR 1.03; 95% CI 0.88 to 1.22, 1213 participants). No trials of naloxone or buprenorphine reported abstinence outcomes.