Not just blowing smoke: Text-based applications for smoking cessation can save lives

With approximately 400,000 Americans dying from tobacco-caused disease annually, and another 50,000 from exposure to secondhand smoke, the nicotine habit continues to take an enormous toll on our country as the leading cause of preventable death. In fact, smoking kills more people in the United States than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined.

Breaking the habit as early in life as possible is critical to stop the cumulative effects of years of smoking which causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, and lung diseases. However, quitting smoking is easier said than done. 

About 70 percent of the 46 million smokers in the U.S. want to quit, and more than 40 percent try to quit each year. The difference between success and failure for many is often getting access to an effective cessation treatment program. Yet, cessation counseling and medications are not readily available to uninsured patients and some patients whose health plans omit or restrict coverage. This is where ubiquitous cell phones might be able to help smokers. 

According to a recently released review of evidence from five studies, mobile phone-based interventions are an effective method for helping smokers quit. The interventions included in the review primarily used text messaging via mobile phones to provide motivational messages, support and tips for stopping smoking, resulting in people being more likely to stay away from cigarettes over a six-month period. Based on the results of the studies, researchers estimated that mobile phone programs could nearly double the chance of quitting for at least six months--from 4 percent to 5 percent--in control groups, to between 6 and 10 percent in intervention groups.

Teen smokers, in particular, need help quitting. Ninety percent of adults who smoke started by the age of 21, and half of them became regular smokers by their 18th birthday. With younger adults more willing to use mobile devices than older adults, they are a natural target for wireless communication that they're very familiar with and appeals to them.

Not surprisingly, the National Cancer Institute wants to assess the efficacy of SmokefreeTXT, a text message smoking cessation intervention program designed for smokers aged 18-29. NCI is recruiting a large sample of young adult smokers to examine how exposure to the SmokefreeTXT program affects participants' success. Launched in December 2011, the program is relatively simple--participants choose a quit date and get motivational messages leading up to the date and for weeks after that.

While a recent Swiss study of text messaging intervention in young people did not have statistically significant short-term effects on smoking cessation, it did result in statistically significant lower cigarette consumption, which is a step in the right direction.

Kicking the nicotine habit altogether is the single most important step a young smoker can take to improve the length and quality of their life. As parents, we sometimes get annoyed by teenage use of cell phones, particularly their constant texting with friends. But for some youths who smoke, mobile technology just might save their lives. - Greg (@Slabodkin