The Best Way to Quit Smoking, According to Research

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(Photo: Raul Lieberwirth/Flickr)

(Photo: Raul Lieberwirth/Flickr)

Oftentimes, money speaks louder than words. Apparently, that aphorism applies to cigarettes too. A new study finds that money incentives work better than behavioral therapy and nicotine patches in getting people to quit smoking.

A closer look at the study offers detailed insight into what rewards system works best. The bottom line? If you're willing to bet money on your quitting, that offers you the best chance. Even if you're not willing to lose greenbacks, overall, monetary rewards proved more effective than typical quit programs 12 months after people's self-selected quit dates—and six months after researchers stopped rewarding people for quitting.

The study included 2,538 smokers recruited among CVS employees and their family and friends. Researchers assigned the study volunteers to one of four money-based programs. Volunteers also had the option of undergoing whatever typical quit program their insurance offered, which would include information pamphlets, behavioral therapy, and nicotine therapy. Below are summaries of the four money programs. (These program names are all ours; don't blame the researchers.)

1. MORE TIME, MORE MONEY

In this program, researchers checked study volunteers' saliva for signs of smoking 14 days, 30 days, and six months after their quit dates. Those who tested clear at each benchmark received money, with the possibility of earning $800 altogether.

2. LIKE AN APARTMENT DEPOSIT

This program had the same payout as the one described above. Volunteers, however, had to leave a $150 deposit up front, which they would only get back if they stopped smoking for six months.

3. THE CO-OP

People got assigned to groups of six. This program rewarded members based on group performance; individuals earned more when more group members quit.

4. THE CUT-THROAT

People were assigned to groups of six that shared a collective pot of money. Successful quitters split the pot equally between them. This program also required people to pay a $150 deposit.

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The results painted an interesting picture. Ninety percent of people assigned to "More Time, More Money" and "the Co-Op" agreed to join the programs. (Those who didn't agree could use a traditional program instead.) These programs' popularity is important—you want people to want to join after all. In contrast, only 14 percent of people agreed to join "Like an Apartment Deposit" and the "Cut-Throat." Among those who accepted the latter two programs, however, the success rates were much higher: After six months, 52 percent tested clean for nicotine, compared to 17 percent of people in pure rewards programs. All four programs were more effective than typical quit programs.

Based on the results, CVS plans to offer a new quitting program for its employees, where workers deposit $50 to enter, and if they test negative for nicotine after 12 months, earn back their deposit, plus $700. That's a lot of money, but such programs could well be cost-saving. One recent study estimated smokers cost companies $5,816 more per year to employ because of additional health care costs, lost work days because of health problems, and lost time from smoke breaks.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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