Smoke No More With Email: Tailored Messages Help Smokers Kick The Habit

How fitting it is that smoking, a habit spread by mass advertising, may now be reduced thanks to a more targeted ad medium: email.

Research conducted by the American Cancer Society found that smokers who received “frequent, tailored emails with quitting tips, motivational messages, and social support” were able to stop smoking at rates rivaling those of the top anti-smoking drugs, according to an article on the American Cancer Society site.

Why was email chosen for this test? Because it is read “daily or near-daily by most individuals,” the article continues. And emails can “be tailored to address unique characteristics of the recipient.”

That’s all true. But as many smokers know, it’s almost impossible to quit once you reach a certain stage. So what happened here? 

The researchers, led by J. Lee Westmaas, strategic director of tobacco control research at the American Cancer Society, studied 1,070 smokers who wanted to stop.

These sufferers were “randomly assigned to receive one of three email protocols: 27 tailored cessation emails; 3 to 4 tailored emails with links to downloadable booklets; or a single non-tailored email,” the article says. All of these emails had links to quitting resources. 

The results? “Across all three follow-up times, the mean abstinence rate was highest for smokers getting the custom emails (34%), followed by receiving three or four emails (30.8%), and a single email (25.8%). 

To measure success, the team asked the subjects whether they had smoked in the past seven days. Their success at abstaining was “assessed one, three, and six months post-enrollment,” the article states

“The overall quit rate for the main intervention group is about equivalent to the abstinence rates achieved by the most effective medication for cessation,” Westmaas said, according to the article. “It appears that the personalization in the emails and their frequency — initially every day, then tapering off — gave people the assurance that someone cared about them, and wanted them to succeed.”

Westmaas added that the smokers “were receiving daily or nearly daily guidance about how to deal with issues that arose in their quit attempt, made possible by a relatively simple computer tailoring algorithm.”

That’s reassuring, given the tawdry history of tobacco and advertising. By the mid-1920s, brand names like Lucky Strike and Camel were plastered on billboards and on the pages of magazines. They depicted smoking as an attractive pastime, and linked it to sports and romance. For example, an early ad for Chesterfield showed a young girl telling her boyfriend, “blow some my way.” 

As the tobacco lords realized, they were not only competing with each other for sales, they were creating a market that never before existed.

Health was the least of their concerns. One early ad promised “Not a cough in a carload.” And in 1926, the Bonded Tobacco Co. sent direct mail pieces, promising that Sackett DeNicotined Smoking Tobacco was good for you. “Smoke to your heart’s content and with content to your heart,” they said.

We now know better. By the 1950s, the first generation of heavy smokers started dying off en masse, and scientists were able to show a link between smoking and respiratory disease, especially lung cancer.

It’s heartening that the tools once used to sell the evil weed can now be used against it.

What’s next for the American Cancer Society? Westmaas is planning a pilot study to “help guide an intervention aimed at low socioeconomic status smokers, a group with higher smoking rates.”

Thank you, doctor. Now let’s roll out the tailored email program and drive some substantial numbers. Who knows? Eventually, this approach may work for alcoholics, opioid abusers and addicts of all sorts. Makes you proud to be involved with email, doesn’t it?


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