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Mobile Technology May Help You Quit Smoking: Research

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Researchers at Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh have illustrated how mobile technology can support health research and maybe even help people quit smoking.

In a six-week nicotine addiction study, published online in the journal Prevention Science, researchers used smartphones to evaluate cigarette addiction, tracking the participants in their natural environments.
Researchers at Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh have illustrated how mobile technology can support health research and maybe even help people quit smoking.

In a six-week nicotine addiction study, published online in the journal Prevention Science, researchers used smartphones to evaluate cigarette addiction, tracking the participants in their natural environments.

The researchers used mobile technology to collect data five times a day, at random intervals. The mobile devices prompted participants to answer questions regarding their current emotional state, their urge to smoke, or if they were smoking at the time. The ability to collect data via mobile technology, combined with a new statistical model to interpret the data collected, allowed researchers to look at how baseline nicotine dependence and negative emotional states influenced participants’ urge to smoke during their smoking cessation process.

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The study “demonstrates the potential for technology to help us figure out the processes involved in withdrawal,” explained Stephanie Lanza, scientific director of The Methodology Center at Penn State and a lead author on the study.

During the six-week study, researchers tracked 304 long-term smokers, who smoked at least one pack a day on average, in their attempt to quit smoking. New software allowed scientists to look at several variables that fluctuated over time, based on the participants’ responses when prompted to rate their urge to smoke or their emotional state. “Without software like this, we would have no idea how to look at this data,” added Lanza.

According to Lanza, the process of nicotine addiction and withdrawal is a complex mixture of biological, social and psychological factors, and the study’s findings reflect how tough it is to break nicotine addiction.

Out of the 304 participants, 40 quit smoking only for the first 24 hours, 207 participants remained relatively tobacco-free during the two weeks after quitting, while 57 participants were not able to quit even for 24 hours. Smokers who relapsed but smoked less than five cigarettes per day were considered successful quitters.

“Our hope is that this kind of software paired up with data gathered through mobile devices will give tobacco researchers new information on how to create interventions that are personally tailored, since everyone’s withdrawal is different,” said Lanza, noting that such mobile technology methods could be used to study other types of addiction as well. “The bright spot to me is that research is shifting to help us understand how to break this addiction.”

While this study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse used mobile technology only to analyze addiction, other efforts use phone messaging to actually help people quit smoking. The U.S. Government, for instance, offers apps such as QuitNowTxt and SmokeFreeTXt to help smokers resist nicotine cravings, and several private companies offer a range of similar apps.

Such services send motivational messages to smokers, encouraging them to fight the urge to smoke, and round-the-clock support is available for people on the verge of relapse. In the future, researchers could follow these examples and add supportive texts to their study, rather than just asking participants to rate their moods and urges to smoke. Nonetheless, this study still marks an important milestone in how mobile technology can support health research.

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