Can Twitter help smokers kick their addiction?

A clinical trial is looking at the use of Twitter to help smokers quit

Smokers looking to kick the habit may try any number of approaches: patches, gums, e-cigarettes, and now tweeting.

At the University of California at Irvine, a recently completed clinical trial looked at whether virtual support networks created through Twitter could help smokers stay away from cigarettes.

An early read of the study's data suggests they can, said lead investigator Cornelia Pechmann. Of the roughly 280 participants in the study, twice as many people in the Twitter experimental group reported they had quit smoking compared with the non-Twitter users in the control group.

People are already using Twitter to help them quit. But spontaneous efforts tend to crash and burn, Pechmann said. Too many people join in, and it's hard for tweets offering real advice or consolation to break through the noise.

Also, existing networks of friends sometimes just keep the status quo, she said.

Researchers at UC-Irvine wanted to see if a private support network on Twitter, connecting subjects who do not know each other, could help would-be quitters fight their cravings.

The study aimed to see whether a small Twitter support group, sharing encouraging messages, could help people quit smoking in 100 days. It was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, without Twitter's involvement.

Subjects were randomly assigned to either an experimental or a control group. Participants in both groups received eight weeks' worth of nicotine patches. For subjects in the experimental group, the researchers set up private Twitter groups in which their messages could only be seen by them and the investigators. There were 20 people in each group. Subjects in each Twitter group were asked to send at least one group message daily for a month, then one every week for a second month.

People used the private network to get support and advice from others if, for instance, they were out and saw someone else smoking, Pechmann said. Some used the network to vent when people they knew lit up. Generally, the participants encouraged each other in their efforts to quit.

More than 1,000 tweets total were published within the experiment. Even though the last group officially ended at least a week ago, on Friday morning people were still engaging with each other online, she said.

The researchers haven't published their complete results yet. They are currently analyzing the tweets to get a better handle on the data. A follow-up study is planned to verify that people actually quit smoking, with verification using saliva test strips.

To qualify for the study, subjects had to have smoked 100 cigarettes during their lifetime and be smoking at least five a day, among other requirements. More than 1,000 people applied to participate.

"Smoking relapse rates remain high, innovative strategies are needed to lower them, and Web-based social networking may help, like Twitter," the researchers said in a description of the study posted on the NIH's ClinicalTrials.gov site.

The NIH has put out a call for other research projects investigating the role of social media in addiction behaviors and substance abuse.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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