Negative reinforcement models posit that relapse to cigarette smoking is driven in part by changes in affect and craving during the quit attempt. Varenicline may aid cessation by attenuating these changes; however, this mediational pathway has not been formally evaluated in placebo-controlled trials. Thus, trajectories of negative affect (NA), positive affect (PA), and craving were tested as mediators of the effect of varenicline on smoking cessation.
Secondary data analysis was conducted on 828 adults assigned to either varenicline or placebo in a randomized controlled trial for smoking cessation (NCT01314001). Self-reported NA, PA, and craving were assessed 1 week pre-quit, on the target quit day (TQD), and 1 and 4 weeks post-TQD.
Across time, NA peaked 1 week post-quit, PA did not change, and craving declined. Less steep rises in NA (indirect effect 95% CI: 0.01 to 0.30) and lower mean craving at 1 week post-quit (CI: 0.06 to 0.50) were mediators of the relationship between varenicline and higher cessation rates at the end of treatment. PA was associated with cessation, but was not a significant mediator.
These results partially support the hypothesis that varenicline improves smoking cessation rates by attenuating changes in specific psychological processes and supported negative affect and craving as plausible treatment mechanisms of varenicline.
The present research provides the first evidence from a placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial that varenicline’s efficacy is due, in part, to post-quit attenuation of NA and craving. Reducing NA across the quit attempt and craving early into the attempt may be important treatment mechanisms for effective interventions. Further, post-quit NA, PA, and craving were all associated with relapse and represent treatment targets for future intervention development.