Smokers Can Quit With Help Via Text Message

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The jury’s still out on just how much cell phones may contribute to cancer, but here’s one way they may help prevent it: by encouraging smokers to quit.

A British study found that smokers who received motivational and supportive text messages from a smoking cessation program called “txt2stop” were nearly twice as likely to quit as those who did not.

The study, published in the journal The Lancet, involved 5,800 smokers who were trying to quit. They were divided into two groups: one received supportive text messages about their cessation efforts while the other received text messages thanking them for being in the study. All participants were texted five times a day for five weeks and then three times a day for 26 weeks.

After six months, the participants were tested for traces of nicotine in their saliva. Those who had received the motivational quit messages were twice as likely to have remained off cigarettes than those who got dummy texts. But make no mistake: quitting smoking is hard. Among the intervention group, only 10.7% were still smoke-free after six months. Among the placebo group, 4.9% were still abstaining from smoking.

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Just how motivating were these texts? An example reads: “TXT2STOP: think you’ll put on weight when you quit? We’re here to help — We’ll TXT weight control and exercise tips, recipes and motivation tips.”

The program also allowed participants to text for support during nicotine cravings or when they’d fallen off the wagon. People could text “crave” to receive advice on how to get through a craving without lighting up. Or they could text “lapse” to get a motivational message, such as: “Don’t feel bad or guilty if you’ve slipped. You’ve achieved a lot by stopping for a while. Slip-ups can be a normal part of the quitting process. Keep going, you can do it!”

While the percentage of smokers who quit during the study remained small, the fact that text messaging was associated with double the likelihood of quitting heartened researchers. In an accompanying editorial, Derrick Bennett and Jonathan Emberson of the University of Oxford wrote that texting quitters on cell phones, which are ubiquitous, could help almost anyone, but may be particularly useful for people in developing countries with few other resources.

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The study’s lead researcher, Caroline Free of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, noted that text messaging wasn’t the only support tool used by the participants: nearly 40% of the smokers used other quit-smoking methods in addition to texting. Nor does texting necessarily work long-term. For a small group of participants, the texts eventually became reminders of smoking, rather than of quitting. “There’s no one form of support that will work for everyone,” Free told USA Today.