The dirty little secret behind smoking cessation apps

A study of the most popular smoking cessation apps finds very few use evidence-based practices proven to help smokers quit.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
Researchers conducted a study of the most downloaded cessation apps for iOS and Android. Butt Out app

One in five deaths in the U.S. can be attributed to cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control, amounting to roughly 440,000 deaths a year. (That's 1,205 a day, or 50 an hour.)

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that smoking cessation apps are all the rage. More than 700,000 such downloads are averaged for the Android OS alone each month, according to Lorien C. Abroms, assistant professor at the George Washington School of Public Health and Health Services, and they enjoy a minimal level of regulation given the Food and Drug Administration has its hands full trying to stay on top of medical apps. In a sea of 40,000-plus health-related apps, those having to do with "wellness" and "lifestyle" have very little oversight.

So Abroms and colleagues decided to conduct a study of the most downloaded cessation apps -- 47 for the iPhone and 51 for Android in February 2012 -- and uncovered a dirty little secret: very few actually adhere to key evidence-based practices shown to help smokers quit, or recommend approved medications, or refer users to quit lines.

Smartphone apps "do not promote aspects of treatments that have proven to work in quitting smoking and so we as public health professionals have reason to be concerned," Abroms said in a Health Behavior News Service release. The researchers published their findings in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (PDF).

The researchers were optimistic that so many people are seeking help, and that technicians are working on apps to meet that need. "But the bad news is smartphone apps may not give people the guidance they need," added Michael C. Fiore, director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "What we're missing with smartphone apps is universally recognized, science-based recommendations."

While it's entirely possible that what works when using an app could be different than what works without one -- and the researchers didn't actually delve into whether these apps proved to be effective -- the tendency to not use the best known and most effective cessation techniques is, they say, cause for concern.