- Jennifer Middleton, MD, MPH
A common New Year's resolution is tobacco cessation, but for many patients, 2021 will be far from the first time they've tried to quit. Enter a new smartphone app, iCanQuit, which showed promising results in a recent study. Although there are some methodological concerns with the study's outcomes, this app may still be worth discussing with patients eager to improve their chances of finally quitting tobacco.
The researchers conducted a randomized, double-blind clinical trial comparing iCanQuit to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) QuitGuide app. The researchers recruited participants with online (primarily Facebook) advertisements; the mean age of participants was 38.2 years, and most (83%) had smoked for over 10 years. 70.4% of identified as female, and 35.9% identified as a member of a racial/ethnic minority group. Since all participants were enrolled and followed online only, the researchers took extra measures to ensure that responses were legitimate by requiring CAPTCHA authentication, monitoring IP addresses, and monitoring the time participants spent completing their online surveys. They enrolled 2415 participants who reported active tobacco smoking, provided the apps, and followed them for 12 months.
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), the theoretical underpinning for iCanQuit, emphasizes "acceptance of smoking triggers," while the NCI QuitGuide app emphasizes "avoidance of smoking triggers." 87% of participants stuck with the study for the entire 12 months; after that time, participants in the iCanQuit group were more likely to report having been smoke-free for 30 days prior (odds ratio 1.49; 95% confidence interval 1.22-1.83). There has been significant debate regarding the need for more objective measures (such as saliva or urine cotinine measurements) to validate self-reported cessation, but one of this study's shortcomings may be the impossibility of verifying these online participants' reports of smoking cessation. One argument supporting these participants' veracity, though, is their reported success rates; among all participants, 24.6% achieved 30-day cessation by the 12 month mark, while only 10.6% achieved "prolonged abstinence" (>30 day cessation). These rates are consistent with the success rates reported for several other tobacco cessation interventions.
The use of apps to facilitate tobacco cessation is not new, but the evidence for their efficacy has room for improvement. A 2019 Cochrane review on mobile tobacco cessation programs found only low quality evidence for smartphone apps, though it found text-based smoking cessation programs to have modest efficacy. A 2020 systematic review that focused on smartphone apps found that:
The majority of studies that use tobacco cessation apps as an intervention delivery modality are mostly at the pilot/feasibility stage. The growing field has resulted in studies that varied in methodologies, study design, and inclusion criteria. More consistency in intervention components and larger randomized controlled trials are needed for tobacco cessation smartphone apps.
Tobacco smoking remains the "leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States," and working with our patients to empower them to quit can have a tremendous impact on their health. Apps such as iCanQuit and the NCI QuitGuide may be another tool to share with patients. Check out the AFP By Topic on Tobacco Abuse and Dependence, which includes evidence-based overviews of several other cessation supports, if you'd like to read more.