May 26, 2009 -- As every smoker knows, it's incredibly hard to quit, but help might be as close as the keyboard on your computer, new research suggests.
Web- and computer-based smoking-cessation programs, including some that are interactive, seem to be effective, shows a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Such methods are cost-effective alternatives to telephone hotlines or counseling services, study researcher Joel Moskowitz, PhD, tells WebMD. Moskowitz is director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
These web-based programs generally help users evaluate the benefits of quitting tobacco, telling them "how much money you'll save, how much longer you'll live," he says. "They set up rewards for smokers. Some are discussion forums, like blogs. On some you can post pictures. Some have hundreds of thousands of people coming in and going out."
"Some have 'quit meters' you can download to your desktop," Moskowitz says. "They help you track how long you've quit. It's important to have immediate reinforcement, to make a public commitment."
The researchers analyzed pooled data from 22 trials in which smokers enrolled in web- or computer-based smoking-cessation programs, and smokers who quit without them. The trials had data on almost 30,000 participants, including 16,050 who were randomly assigned to a web- or computer-based program. The trials were conducted in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Germany, and Switzerland.
Although cessation rates at three months were similar between the two groups, the researchers found that 9.9% managed to stay away from smoking for a year after the web- or computer-based cessation programs, compared to 5.7% who were not enrolled in a computer- or web-based program.
Data spanned 19 years and included three to 12 months' worth of follow-up information.
"Currently, Web and computer-based smoking cessation programs are not commonly recommended because evidence of their effectiveness has been inconsistent," study researcher Seung-Kwon Myung, MD, staff physician at the Smoking Cessation Clinic at the National Cancer Center in South Korea, says in a news release. "But our review of the evidence to date suggests that Web and computer-based programs have a legitimate place in tobacco dependence treatment options."
Myung, who conducted research while a visiting scholar at Berkeley, says computer-based programs won't necessarily supplant existing treatment options, such as medications or counseling. But they could help people who can't afford to pay for treatment or who are concerned about the stigma associated with seeking treatment.
Moskowitz tells WebMD that many smokers may prefer computer or web systems over face-to-face or person-to-person phone counseling sessions to avoid embarrassment.
"Some of these programs give immediate reinforcement, and that's important," Moskowitz says. And computer programs can easily be translated into many languages, which means they could benefit a diverse group of people.