Smokers who receive a personalized risk report for smoking-related diseases may be more likely to seek smoking cessation services. The new study of 4,384 smokers, from 18 service areas across England, were either given a new personalized letter explaining their individual risk of developing smoking-related diseases and offering them a stop-smoking trial session (2,636 people) or a routine referral letter (1,748 people) without these details.
The Stop Smoking Services at the National Health Service (NHS) in England combine specialist support with prescribed medication. While these services are an effective way to help people stop smoking, attendance remains low at around only 1 in 20 (less than 5%) smokers using the service each year.
The personalized health risk letter was based on that individual’s medical records, and included the smoker’s individual risk of serious illness if they continued the habit, rating them as being at high, very high, or extremely high risk compared to those who have quit smoking or never smoked. The letter also included information about how much their risk would decrease if they quit smoking immediately.
As an example, “Based on your smoking habits and your personal health, your current risk of developing a serious illness and suffering an early death is very high compared to a non-smoker or ex-smoker of your age. Even by smoking 12 cigarettes per day you are seriously increasing your risk of developing one of these major diseases and dying sooner than you need to. The good news is that if you quit now, at 45, you can halve your additional risk of contracting these diseases, or of suffering any other conditions such as a stroke and osteoporosis…”
Researchers found that 17% (458) of those who received the personalized letter attended the first session of a Stop Smoking Service course within 6 months of receiving the letter, compared with nine percent (158) of those who received the routine referral letter. This suggests that the personalized letter doubled the likelihood that a person would attend the first session of a stop-smoking course.
Six months after receiving the letter, those who received a personalized risk report were more than 1.5 times more likely to have gone without a cigarette for a week (nine percent compared with 5.5%). Of those who took up the offer and attended the trial session, and also subsequently attended the Stop Smoking Service, 28.7% achieved seven day abstinence.
“Smokers underestimate their own personal risk of illness, so a key aim in motivating them to try to quit is to persuade them that these risks are personally relevant. Individual risk information can also arouse fear or concern, which might prompt them to quit, particularly when combined with a reassuring message that doing so would be effective and that help is available,” said lead author Dr. Hazel Gilbert, University College Medical School, U.K.
“The combination of hard-hitting ‘why quit’ messages about the consequences of tobacco use, and supportive and positive ‘how to quit’ messages, emphasizing quitting resources, has been shown to be effective in some mass media campaigns. In our study, we found that this combination of personalized risk and easy access to a session doubled smokers’ likelihood of attending and increased their chances of quitting.”
Overall, smokers found the trial sessions helpful and interesting. About two out of three participants found the letter useful and very few found it antagonistic, depressing or anxiety-inducing, suggesting that using risk information while offering support was an appropriate way to target smokers.