Do Smoking Cessation Apps Work?

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
July 21, 2022
Do Smoking Cessation Apps Work?

Research on apps to help you kick cigarettes has progressed. Successful quit-smoking apps that address what triggers smoking are now backed by science.

You know smoking is bad for your health, your pocketbook and, because of second hand smoke, your loved ones. You want to quit, but you want to do it quietly on your own. Having help at your fingertips to stay on course would be ideal.

This approach to giving up cigarettes sounds reasonable, and it has spurred the creation of hundreds of quit-smoking apps over the past decade. Millions of smokers in the U.S. have tried the large assortment of available, free, downloadable apps created to help them kick their nicotine habit.

Of course, using an app doesn’t mean that it provides the help you need. So, despite the enthusiastic acceptance and use of quit-smoking apps early on, researchers wanted to find out just how useful this virtual type of help really was.

What they found initially wasn’t exactly encouraging. (There is, however, good news coming.)

In fact, the researchers found that basic, proven smoking cessation strategies weren’t included in many of the most popular quit-smoking apps for iPhones and Androids. An extensive analysis by George Washington University researchers in 2013, for example, found the apps failed to give users information about free quitlines manned by trained counselors, even though using these toll-free resources more than doubles the chances a smoker will successfully give up cigarettes. The apps typically didn’t help smokers develop a personal quit-smoking plan, either. Fewer than one in 20 smoking cessation apps recommended medication to help resist nicotine cravings.




Today’s better stop-smoking apps

Quit-smoking apps have changed and improved over the years. Now there’s evidence, backed by science, some are more likely than ever to help you successfully stop smoking. That’s because more apps now include an important key to giving up the nicotine habit for good: They help you recognize what triggers you to want to light up and offer strategies to stop responding to those triggers with a smoke.

The Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute, with input from ex-smokers, created the free quit-smoking app, QuitGuide. It lets you track when and where you tend to have cravings for a cigarette as well as how you are feeling — happy, in a bad mood, worried — when you feel the urge to have a smoke.

The app sends motivational messages to help you stay the course, as well as tips and ways to distract yourself from smoking. The app lets you monitor progress with journaling and marks your smoke-free milestones. Using the QuitGuide app to understand smoking patterns, you are more likely to build the skills you need to stop smoking for good.

While the popular QuitGuide app has helped thousands of smokers quit, research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found another free smartphone app, iCanQuit, might help even more people quit smoking. The difference in the two apps is that iCanQuit incorporates strategies from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

ACT grew out of tenets from traditional behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Long used with cancer patients, ACT is an action-oriented way to help people stop avoiding or denying their feelings, while committing to making changes in their behaviors to benefit mental and physical health. The Fred Hutchinson research team created the iCanQuit app based on the ACT approach to see if it could help smokers conquer their cigarette addiction.

The iCanQuit app encourages smokers to accept their feelings — like recognizing they long for a smoke after dinner — while sticking to a commitment to use distractions and other strategies to not smoke. It teaches ACT skills for coping with smoking urges, staying motivated, and preventing relapses. Users set up a personalized quit plain, learn about smoking cessation medications, and receive on-demand help in coping with smoking urges. Smokers track the daily number of cigarettes they smoke and how many urges they let pass without smoking.

The Fred Hutchinson researchers first compared the iCanQuit and QuitGuide apps almost a decade ago in a small study — the first study of any smartphone app for quitting smoking — involving only 60 people trying to quit cigarettes. Then, in 2020, the research team published extensive research involving more than 2,400 adult smokers throughout the U.S.

The results showed the iCanQuit app was about 1.5 times more effective than the QuitGuide app at helping smokers quit after 12 months. Based on their findings, the research team concluded about 28,000 out of 100,000 smokers who use iCanQuit would successfully quit smoking.

“Our study offers a new approach to quitting smoking,” said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center psychologist and smoking cessation app researcher specialist Jonathan B. Bricker, PhD. “By deploying ACT-based methods that focus on acceptance of smoking triggers instead of avoidance of smoking triggers, we believe iCanQuit can help more smokers kick the habit and thereby reduce premature deaths.”

Choose what works for you

Quit-smoking apps have evolved and increased in number in recent years, and they are easy to find via a quick online or app store search. What’s most important, if you are trying to stop smoking, is to pick the app from the dozens available that works best for you — then stick with it.

Whether or not a quit-smoking app works for you, there is another well-researched way smartphones can help smokers kick their cigarette habit. "They should simply pick up their smartphone and call a quitline now to get proven help on how to beat a tobacco addiction,” said Lorien Abroms, ScD, Georgetown University professor of Prevention and Community Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers the 1-800-QUIT-NOW helpline.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Our Smoking section


July 21, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN