By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Smokers are twice as likely to quit when they get text messages urging them to stick to their goal of being smoke free compared with those who receive texts with no motivational messages, a British study has found.
Experts say the "txt2stop" trial, which is the first such study to verify quit rates using biochemical testing, may offer a cheap and easy way to improve levels of health by increasing the number of people who give up smoking.
With rates of smoking rising in many developing countries and tobacco predicted to kill 8 million people a year by 2030, the researchers said their findings could be translated into a potentially powerful public health measure.
"To scale up the txt2stop intervention for delivery at a national or international level would be technically easy," said Caroline Free of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the study and published it in The Lancet journal.
She said the scheme may need some adaptation, translation into other languages, and local evaluation before it is used in other populations, but added that it is simple, cheap and "likely to be highly cost-effective."
Tobacco kills up to half its users and is described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as "one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced."
It causes lung cancer, which is often fatal, and other chronic respiratory diseases. It is also a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, the world's number one killers.
The texting trial randomly allocated 5,800 smokers in Britain who wanted to quit to either the txt2stop program or to a control group who got non-motivational texts.
The motivational texts included encouragement up to the actual quit day, advice on keeping weight off while quitting, and help dealing with cravings.
The craving text, for example, said: "Cravings last less than 5 minutes on average. To help distract yourself, try sipping a drink slowly until the craving is over."
Non-motivational texts just thanked people for their participation, requested confirmation of contact details, or said a range of other things not connected to smoking.
The researchers used saliva tests to verify whether those who said they had stopped smoking had actually done so.
The results showed that those in the txt2stop group were more than twice as likely to report biochemically-verified quitting than those in the control group, with success rates of 10.7 percent and 4.9 percent respectively.
"Text messages are a very convenient way for smokers to receive support to quit," Free said in a statement. "People described txt2stop as like having a 'friend' encouraging them or an 'angel on their shoulder'. It helped people resist the temptation to smoke."
In a commentary on the findings, Derrick Bennett and Jonathan Emberson from Britain's Oxford University said that because of the rapid growth in both mobile phone use and smoking in some poor countries, the lessons learned from the txt2stop trial could provide a new approach to smoking cessation campaigns in both wealthy and low-income countries.