This story by U.S. News & World Report highlights the results of a trial of a digital aid to quit smoking: tailored emails. Researchers sent multiple encouraging messages, which also included links to information on how to quit, to willing smokers, then followed up six months later to see if the recipients had resumed smoking at lower rates than participants who received a single non-tailored email. The story did a good job of explaining how the study worked, seemed to grasp the quality of the evidence, and went out of the way to describe multiple alternative methods to quitting smoking (and their risks). However, the article would have been stronger had it had described previous research into email-based interventions, and compared the benefits of multiple emails to other effective approaches. We learn that more tailored emails are better than a single non-tailored email, but how do the quit rates seen here compare, numerically, with other approaches that smokers might try?
Smoking kills nearly half a million Americans every year, according to the CDC, and dependence on tobacco products is seen by many medical professionals today as a chronic disease. Any new tool to help smokers quit and reduce their risks for disabling and life-threatening diseases would be a positive step.
The cost isn’t provided, since the work is not available to the public. But like most other digital aids for smoking cessation, we presume this method would be free.
We’re told 36 percent of smokers who received multiple encouraging and informative emails said they didn’t smoke 6 months after the trial, whereas single-email subjects only had a 6-month abstinence rate of 26.5 percent. That’s enough detail for a Satisfactory rating. The story would have been stronger if it had specifically compared these effects with other approaches.
The story implies that the email method might not work the first time, or perhaps even the first couple dozen times, since quitting is an incredible challenge. We also appreciated how the story detailed a few risks of popular alternative approaches to quitting smoking, including medications and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT).
We were pleasantly surprised to see a paragraph dedicated to covering the weaknesses of this study, namely that study participants were well-educated and white, and how future research could make up for this and other shortcomings. The story also describes the controls — quitters who used NRT — and how the email method still seemed to have a positive effect when NRT was subtracted from the results.
We didn’t see anything in this story that’d unnecessarily frighten or incense readers.
The story quotes two expert sources who don’t appear to be involved with the study, though this fact isn’t pointed out. Both sources emphasize the difficult nature of quitting smoking, and how there’s no silver bullets out there.
The story notes that trying multiple cessation methods is the most effective strategy, and that tailored emails are intended to be an additional aid — not a replacement for other methods. But several specific alternatives to quitting smoking are noted, including NRT, a text-message support program, mobile apps to support quitting, professional counseling, and medications such as varenicline and bupropion. The story would have been stronger if it had told readers how the 36% quit rate seen in this study after 6 months compares with other approaches.
We’re told the tailored email program isn’t yet available to the public, but that the American Cancer Society hopes to take a similar program live in 2018.
Research on tailored messages to help smokers quit goes back nearly two decades, and this isn’t the first study to probe the efficacy of emails. The story doesn’t provide this context. Nor does it note that the BMJ-published study appears to be the largest of its kind — more than 1,000 subjects participated.
We didn’t detect any copy-pasted quotes in this story, or other evidence that it leaned on a news release.