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Study: If You Want to Quit Smoking, There's No App for That

Smartphones abound in our society, so it's no surprise there are at least two dozen iPhone apps out there designed to help people quit smoking. Somewhat more surprising, according to this study (pdf), is that none of this software is likely to do the job.

For the paper, out now in the March American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Lorien Abroms and her colleagues evaluated 47 iPhone apps that they downloaded one June day in 2009. All were supposed to aid buyers in their struggle against tobacco. (One, eliminated, turned out to be about barbecue, which just goes to show you how false positives turn up in the darnedest places, even on the term "quit smoking.")

Some apps were "calculators", the paper says, telling owners how much money they'd saved and/or how their health measures had improved since they had quit. Others, the "calendars," tracked days up to or after the quit date. "Rationers" set out a slowly reducing schedule of tobacco products allowed. "Mesmerizers" (O.K., I made that label up) were apps that used hypnosis techniques. A few tried other approaches.

The researchers compared the apps' strategies to recognized anti-smoking techniques. All flunked. Hypnosis, according to the U.S. Public Health Service, doesn't work. Calendars, alone, haven't been found effective. (Yet hypnosis and calendars were the basis of more than half the downloads in the quit-smoking genre.)

Rationers and calculators at least used techniques of successful anti-tobacco programs, but they offered these methods in isolation, the paper says. If you want a serious chance of quitting, Abroms et al. write, you need support, both chemical and social. You need friends who've agreed to encourage and badger you, or a phone line to call for advice. And some nicotine gum. The apps should have sent people to this kind of aid. Instead, none pointed beyond itself.

Though the sample was taken a year and a half ago, Abroms, interviewed this week by the Health Behavior News Service, doesn't seem to think things have improved. By ignoring the non-digital world, it seems, digital media, on this front at least, aren't doing the good they promise.

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