By Margarita Nahapetyan
It is not a secret to anyone how hard it is to quit smoking. However, not everyone might know that the best solution for the problem might be as close as a keyboard of the computer. A new analysis by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, suggests that Internet and computer-based smoking cessation programs are really worth a try.
Such methods, including some that are interactive, are cost-effective alternatives to much more expensive telephone hotlines or counseling services, said a lead investigator of the study, Joel Moskowitz, PhD, a director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California. These Internet-based programs generally help individuals consider all the benefits of quitting tobacco, demonstrating them how much money can be saved, for example, or how much longer they could live, he said.
The programs set up rewards for smokers. Some are discussion forums, like blogs. On some there is an opportunity for users to post their photographic images. Some even have hundreds of thousands of visitors coming in and going out every day. Some of these programs have 'quit meters' that are downloadable to a desktop. They help smokers track how long they have quit. "It is important to have immediate reinforcement, to make a public commitment," Dr. Moskowitz said.
The investigators systematically analyzed 22 trials in which smokers who took part in Web- or computer-based smoking cessation programs were compared with smokers who tried to quit on their own. The trials included a total of 29,549 participants, 16,050 of whom were randomly assigned to the Internet-based program and 13,500 were assigned to a control group. Ten trials used supplemental interventions such as counseling, classroom lessons, nicotine replacement gum or patches, medication or quit lines, while twelve studies used just Web- or computer-based programs. The trials were conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and Switzerland.
The results revealed that in spite of the fact that cessation rates at three months were similar between the two groups, 9.9 per cent of the participants managed to stay away from smoking for a year after participating in the Web- or computer-based smoking cessation programs, when compared to 5.7 per cent of those who tried to quit without the help of a computer- or Web-based program. The length of the study was 19 years (1989 to 2008) and included 3 to 12 months' worth of follow-up information.
According to the researcher Dr. Seung-Kwon Myung, MD, staff physician at the Smoking Cessation Clinic at the National Cancer Center in South Korea, at present time Internet and computer-based smoking cessation programs are not commonly recommended because there have not been enough evidence to support their effectiveness. However, the findings of the new study demonstrate that Web and computer-based programs have a legitimate place in tobacco dependence treatment options, he said.
Dr. Myung, who conducted research while a visiting scholar at Berkeley, says that computer-based programs will not necessarily substitute existing treatment options, such as anti-tobacco drugs or counseling, for example. But they could help those individuals who cannot afford to pay for treatment or who are not feeling comfortable to seek treatment. The experts also said that many smokers may give more preference to computer or web systems over face-to-face or person-to-person phone counseling sessions in order to avoid associated with it embarrassment.
The findings are published in the latest issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine journal.