Lead author Richard O'Connor, Ph.D., a cancer prevention researcher with Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y, said that postcard promotions offer a cost-effective method of boosting call volume to a smoking cessation quit line.
He said that direct mail can be part of a broad range of quitter recruitment strategies.
For the study, researchers mailed postcards promoting the services of a New York smoking cessation quit line and offering a two-week free starter kit of nicotine patches to the homes of 77,527 smokers, at an average mailing cost of 35 cents per household.
Smokers randomly received one of two versions of the postcards: one version described the benefits of the nicotine patch and the other dispelled fears about the health risks of the nicotine patch.
"Between 1 percent and 4 percent of smokers who received an unsolicited mailing about the quit line responded to the card," O'Connor said.
Researchers found that in the 15-day period following the mailing, call volume increased 36 percent — from an average of 139 calls per day before the mailing to 189 calls afterward.
Besides this, smokers who called because they had received a postcard were more likely to request free nicotine patches.
"The mailing promotion successfully communicated the availability of free nicotine medications to those who received it," the authors said.
What surprised the researchers was that no significant differences existed between the two versions of postcards and later call volume.
"In retrospect, the difference [between the two versions] may have been too subtle," he said.
Lirio Covey, Ph.D., director of the smoking cessation program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, said: "The positive results, albeit modest, are certainly suggestive of direct mailings' value."
However, "because the response rate was so low, the large question is why the overwhelming majority did not respond," Covey added.
According to the researchers, the response rate in this study is consistent with response rates for direct mail promotions of commercial products.
The findings are published in the July issue of the journal Health Promotion Practice.