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BACKGROUND: Brief advice to stop smoking from general practitioners (GPs) has been repeatedly shown to increase smoking cessation by a small, but measurable amount. Some studies have suggested that adding more intensive interventions to brief advice may increase its effectiveness, but it is unclear whether this is true in general practice. AIMS: To determine whether brief advice from a doctor together with counselling and follow-up from a trained practice nurse is more effective than brief advice alone in helping people to stop smoking. METHODS: The design was a randomized controlled trial. Four hundred and ninety-seven general practice patients aged older than 18 years and smoking at least one cigarette per day in six general practices in Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire were randomized to one of two interventions: brief verbal or written advice from a GP plus extended counselling and follow-up from a trained practice nurse; brief advice from a GP alone. The primary outcome was sustained abstinence from smoking at three and 12 months. A secondary outcome was forward movement in the stages of change cycle. RESULTS: The proportion showing sustained abstinence was 3.6% in the extended counselling group, and 4.4% in the brief advice group (difference = -0.8%; 95% confidence interval = -4.3% to 2.6%). Seventy-four (30%) of those randomized to extended counselling actually took up this offer. No significant progression in stages of change was detected between the two groups. CONCLUSIONS: In unselected general practice patients who smoke, brief advice from a GP combined with intensive intervention and follow-up by a practice nurse is no more effective than brief advice alone.