Computer-based programs provide help for smokers trying to quit

May 25, 2009

Berkeley -- Trying to quit cigarettes but don't know how? A new analysis led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, suggests that Web- and computer-based smoking cessation programs are worth a try, and fortunately during these tough economic times, many of them are free.

Such programs offer a cost-effective alternative to interventions such as telephone hotlines or counseling services, both of which require trained personnel, the researchers said. These programs typically help users evaluate the benefits of quitting tobacco, such as saving money by not buying cigarettes, and suggest specific strategies for how to handle relapses.

"With the rising cost of health care, there is a need to look for less expensive health programs that are effective," said study co-author Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. "What we found in our meta-analysis was that Web- and computer-based programs, once they're set up and running, are a worthy alternative."

The authors of the study, to be published Monday, May 25, in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, systematically analyzed 22 trials in which smokers enrolled in Web- or computer-based smoking cessation programs were compared with smokers who tried to quit on their own. The trials, which totaled nearly 30,000 participants, 16,000 of whom were randomly assigned to a Web- or computer-based program, spanned 19 years and included three to 12 months' worth of follow-up data.

They found that the percentage of smokers who managed to stay away from tobacco a year after the Web- or computer-based smoking cessation program ended was 9.9 percent, a rate that is about 1.7 times higher than for those who tried to quit on their own.

"Currently, Web- and computer-based smoking cessation programs are not commonly recommended because evidence of their effectiveness has been inconsistent," said the study's lead author, Dr. Seung-Kwon Myung, staff physician at the Smoking Cessation Clinic at the National Cancer Center in South Korea. "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 the research while he was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for Family and Community Health, said that computer-based programs won't necessarily supplant existing treatment options, such as phone counseling or medications. But he noted that the Web can be particularly helpful for the uninsured who may not have access to services, or for those who are concerned about the stigma of seeking treatment.

Moskowitz noted that many smokers may prefer the flexibility and privacy offered by Web and computer programs over counseling done face-to-face or over the phone. He added that computer programs can be easily translated into various languages to reach out to a more diverse group of people.

University of California - Berkeley

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