Financial incentives could help smokers quit says US study

In collaboration with the Press Association

US research suggests that money talks when it comes to helping people quit smoking.

"This study  shows that offering rewards, alongside information and support, increases the length of time people were free from the lethal grip of tobacco.” - Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK

A team at the University of Pennsylvania found that financial incentives, offered as a reward, gave smokers extra motivation to quit.

The researchers found that participants were even more motivated to quit if they had to deposit some of their own money to be eligible for rewards. But few smokers  (14 per cent) were willing to accept those terms.

“This study adds to existing evidence showing that financial incentives may be useful for helping people quit smoking,” commented Professor Linda Bauld, director of the Institute for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling.

Bauld’s team recently published results of a trial in Scotland, which found that pregnant women were more than twice as likely to give up smoking if they were given financial incentives. However, a previous review of the available evidence suggested any benefit for smoking cessation was not sustained in the long term.

In the latest study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, US researchers carried out a year-long randomised trial among staff of a large pharmacy company and their friends and family.

They assigned a total of 2,538 participants to one of five groups: individual reward (reward based on individual performance); collaborative reward (reward based on group performance); individual deposit (requiring an upfront deposit of $150 (£95) with subsequent matching funds); competitive deposit (competing for other participants’ deposits and matching funds) or usual care (including information and free smoking cessation aids).

Approximately nine in 10 participants (90 per cent) assigned to reward-based programs were willing to participate. Of those, 16 in every 100 (16 per cent) remained smoke-free for six months, compared to only six in every 100 (six per cent) of those who received usual care.

By contrast, among the 14 per cent who enrolled in the deposit-based programme, more than half (52 per cent) remained smoke-free after six months.

“We found that the reward-based programs were more effective than deposits overall because more people accepted them in the first place,” said lead author Scott Halpern, assistant professor of Medicine, Epidemiology, and Medical Ethics and Health Policy.

"This study  shows that offering rewards, alongside information and support, increases the length of time people were free from the lethal grip of tobacco,” said Stirling’s Professor Bauld. 

"On the basis of this trial, further consideration should be given to how financial incentives can be integrated with existing stop smoking services to help increase the number of people quitting. This is particularly important in more disadvantaged groups where we know smoking rates are higher,” she added.

Chris Woodhall, Cancer Research UK’s senior tobacco control officer, welcomed the findings, but cautioned that they would need to be replicated among UK smokers.  

“Up to two in three long-term smokers will die from their addiction, so any measure which reduces the number of people hooked on tobacco, will save lives,” said Woodhall.

“A quit attempt made with the support of the free Stop Smoking Services is around three times more likely to be successful than attempting to stop unassisted. But success rates, and the number of smokers actually attending their local service, remain too low. So we're keen to see whether these new findings could be replicated in smokers in the UK.”

“We’re committed to achieving a tobacco free generation in the UK within the next 20 years and welcome research which can contribute to the development of innovative, evidence-based policies," he added.


Carrot Image by Alan O'Rourke via Flickr under CC-BY-2.0