Want to help people quit smoking? Get a national TV network to publicize your toll-free number. That is the message of a new study that found calls to a national smoking-cessation hotline more than tripled in the wake of news anchor Peter Jennings' death from lung cancer.
"It's not enough just to build a (smoking cessation) service. You also have to advertise it," said Erik Augustson, a behavioral scientist with the National Cancer Institute's Tobacco Control Research Branch.
In November 2005 ABC News promoted the national 1-800-QUIT-NOW phone number during a series of World News Tonight stories called "Quit to Live: Fighting Lung Cancer."
Augustson and colleagues examined the response. The study findings appear in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.
The phone number links callers to state counselors who give them recommendations about how to quit smoking. The counselors gave advice instead of simply referring callers to resources, Augustson said.
"We know that these things work. We know that in general, when people call and participate, the customer satisfaction tends to be very high," he said. "You really talk to a person who talks to you about what's going on (in your life), but very few people use these services."
The study found that the number of calls to the hotline jumped from 9,723 in October 2005 to 29,942 in November 2005. However, calls fell to 8,966 in December.
It is important to study smoking-cessation hotlines because they are so successful, in some cases doubling or tripling quit rates, Augustson said. On the other hand, he said, only 1 percent to 2 percent of smokers might call a hotline.
Augustson said the next step is to find more effective ways to promote smoking-cessation hotlines. Putting the phone number on cigarette packs is one idea.
"The flip side of this is that if we increase the traffic to quit lines, we also need to be able to staff them so they can handle that increased traffic," he said. "That represents a significant challenge. These are state-level programs, and state-level funding can wax and wane."
Lirio Covey, director of the Smoking Cessation Program at Columbia University Medical Center, said the study findings are not surprising. It would be more valuable to know what happened to callers in the long term, she said.
As for the efforts to help people quit, Covey said it is clear that persistence pays off. "Smoking is so easy to do and stopping so difficult, thus cessation messages can be easy to ignore. The more they are promoted, the more resistance can be addressed."