Could psychedelics help you quit smoking?

It’s hard to imagine a time when you could smoke a cigarette on an airplane, but airline bans on smoking only took place in North America a little over 30 years ago.

Despite public health education and prevention efforts, approximately 15 percent of Canadians currently smoke tobacco. Although the rate of lung cancer in both men and women has reduced since 1990, smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable disease and death in Canada—more than the number of people who die in traffic accidents across all of North America.

Close to 30,000 Canadians are diagnosed with lung cancer each year (13 percent of all new cancer cases in 2021), and an estimated 48,000 Canadians die annually from smoking-related conditions. Others live with chronic diseases. Long-term smoking is associated with cognitive decline and a risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Globally, the number of deaths annually caused by tobacco use is projected to rise to over 8 million deaths annually by 2030.

Three out of five people who experiment with cigarettes will become addicted. Each year about half of all smokers try to quit, but only about six percent are able to in a given year. People in withdrawal from nicotine experience neurocognitive deficits such as problems with attention or memory, and these symptoms contribute to continued smoking. Most smokers must make multiple attempts before they are able to permanently quit. 

Treatments that support tobacco cessation include behavioral therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Interviewing (MI) and medications such as bupropion and varenicline combined with replacement therapy. Research shows that smokers who receive a combination of behavioral treatment and medications quit at higher rates than those receiving minimal intervention.

Drugmakers have spent billions of dollars searching for therapies that can safely help people quit smoking, but it can be argued that conventional efforts have had little avail.

Despite the treatments that exist, the statistics still show that more can be done to prevent and treat smoking addiction and related diseases.

Photo: Artur Kornakov

How psychedelics could help people quit smoking

Similar to other types of addictions including alcohol use disorder, the mechanism behind how psychedelics affect us has the potential to treat smoking addiction. In particular, the vast majority of studies—led by Dr. Matthew Johnson of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore—has focused on the potential of psilocybin mushrooms in terms of tobacco addiction.

The first study published in 2014 provided preliminary data on the safety and feasibility of psilocybin as an adjunct to smoking cessation treatment. Results show promise regarding the safety of psilocybin, although adverse effects were reported. Eighty percent of participants were abstinent from smoking six months following the study.

A few years later, another study assessed the long-term effects of a psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation program over a year after psilocybin administration. At the long-term follow-up (past 12 months), nine participants (60%) were confirmed as smoking abstinent. Thirteen participants (86.7%) rated their psilocybin experiences among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.

In 2019, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers reported 15 study participants taking psilocybin in the context of a treatment program involving cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) achieved an 80 percent abstinence rate over six months, compared to an approximate 35 percent success rate for patients taking verenicline, which is considered the most effective smoking cessation drug.

Just last month, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Johns Hopkins University and New York University were awarded nearly $4 million in funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to continue studying the efficacy of psilocybin in helping people quit smoking, marking the first federally funded study of a classic psychedelic as a therapeutic in approximately 50 years.

Professor Johnson told The Toronto Sun following the announcement: “People have deeply introspective experiences. They have an increase in mental flexibility and personality openness. And so people are more ready to make longstanding changes, to really view themselves from a general perspective, to step outside of the story of you know, ‘I’m just a smoker. I’m addicted. I can’t quit. I’ve tried 100 times. Why bother?’” 

He continued: “It’s one (dose) and you’re done…And that’s the really astonishing thing about this field is that it’s not ongoing use of these substances. It’s having an insightful, helpful psychological experience that you can leverage. This really, when it works well in these sessions, people can really get at more of the heart of the addiction. People often just come to this decision, it’s a no-brainer that they can quit.”

Mydecine Innovations Group is partnering with Principal Investigator (PI) Professor Johnson on a study evaluating the administration of MYCO-001 with a structured smoking cessation treatment program in nicotine dependent individuals. The proposed study is projected to launch in 2022 and will be looking at primary endpoints of three and six months, to be completed as early as the fourth quarter of 2022.

While it may seem that psychedelic studies are still in their infancy with regards to treating smoking addiction, the strides that have been made in recent years show great potential. HAVN Life is excited for the potential for psychedelics in treating all types of addiction, especially ones so visible they are considered common. We’re committed to working toward a world in which cognitive health and mental wellness are the norm.

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