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Quitting Smoking With Lasers: Too Good to Be True?

Cigarette smoking is responsible for approximately one in every five deaths in the U.S., taking the lives of over 440,000 people per year, according to the CDC. That’s why any intervention that aims to reduce the huge morbidity and mortality associated with smoking is such a potential boon for public health. If it can do so effectively and without side effects, then it truly has the power to change the future of smoking cessation treatment and save millions of lives around the world. One such intervention is laser acupuncture, which promises smoking cessation in as little as an hour, with no side effects and no residual cravings. It sounds like the intervention we’ve been waiting for, but is it too good to be true?

The Theory

The principle behind the laser treatment is that acupuncture points can be stimulated with lasers. By targeting the same nerve endings in the brain that nicotine does (stimulating a flood of endorphins), purveyors of the treatment—such as Innovative Laser Therapy—claim that it can help smokers through the initial stages of withdrawal and make quitting much easier. In addition, lasers are targeted at the areas on the body assumed to be related to appetite suppression and relaxation, to combat the common side effects of quitting smoking. In theory, this could create an effective treatment with no side effects.

The Initial Issues

One of the biggest problems with this theory is the general issue that real acupuncture is no more effective than “fake” acupuncture (where the points targeted are not the ones believed to have a therapeutic effect), ultimately relegating the practice to the realms of pseudoscience. Performing this same basic procedure with lasers would therefore, at best, be as effective as acupuncture (or an inactive placebo), but at worst—since lasers obviously have a smaller impact on the body than a needle—even less effective. The theory, even from a broad perspective, is bunkum.

Research Into Laser Acupuncture

Of course, laser acupuncture may have some additional effect, perhaps making the original (and ineffective) idea of acupuncture actually a viable approach. The approach has been studied to find some evidence one way or another. The proponents of laser acupuncture often cite a study from the Journal of Chinese Medicine. Participants were split into three groups, one received four real laser treatments, another received three real laser treatments and a fake one, and the final group received all fake treatments. At the end of the six-month study period, 55 percent of those receiving four treatments were abstinent from smoking, compared to 19 percent who received only three treatments and a mere 6 percent of those receiving the fake treatment.

This result sounds promising, but the problem lies in that this is only a single piece of research. Additionally, the rates of abstinence weren’t actually measured using objective, scientific analysis; the researchers merely asked the participants if they were abstinent from smoking. People lie, and other research into the same topic has reached the opposite conclusion.

The Cochrane Collaboration undertook a systematic review of the evidence into the effects of acupuncture and related treatments (including laser acupuncture) for smoking cessation, and found that there is no evidence to suggest any significant benefit of acupuncture (in any form) over the long term. They looked at 33 studies, and while acupuncture had a greater short-term effect than the fake version, the studies themselves were too biased to lead to firm conclusions. Overall, the researchers were able to comment that acupuncture in any form was less effective than nicotine replacement therapy (like patches and gums) and was also less effective than psychological intervention over the long or short-term. The evidence for laser treatment was deemed insufficient and inconclusive.

Acupuncture for Smoking Cessation: Too Good to Be True?

The evidence may not speak with a strong and unified voice, but there is little reason to doubt the conclusion that laser acupuncture is ineffective for helping you quit smoking. With acupuncture itself being ineffective, the proposition that performing the same basic process with lasers would be any more effective is quite frankly absurd. There is no shortcut; if you want to quit smoking, you can’t “switch off” your addiction with a beam of ordered light.

Although skeptical readers would have struggled to believe the claims for laser acupuncture from the outset, the story serves as a lesson in the need for evidence-based intervention in addition. The placebo effect is a powerful force, and in the absence of rigorous scientific scrutiny, it can lead people to believe in all manner of ineffective approaches. To find something that really works as a treatment for any condition, the data both in favor of it and against it must be placed under the microscope of science and come out relatively unscathed.

There is still hope.

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