Smokers who are paid to quit succeed far more often than those who get no cash reward, according to a new study that provides some of the strongest evidence yet that financial incentives can help change such behavior.
The study, one of the largest of its kind, comes at a time when more employers, schools and other institutions are paying people to do everything from lose weight to improve their grades. The latest findings were published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine:
-- Smoking is one of the nation's biggest causes of premature death; it is believed to kill about 480,000 Americans a year.
-- About 20 percent of all U.S. adults smoke, which is down from about 25 percent 10 years ago.
-- Although most smokers say they want to quit, research in recent years indicates that less than 3 percent of those who try every year succeed in doing so permanently.
For the new study, researchers, led by a team from the University of Pennsylvania, tracked 878 General Electric Co. employees from around the country for a year and a half in 2005 and 2006. Participants, who smoked an average of one pack of cigarettes a day, were divided into two groups of roughly equal size. All received information about smoking-cessation programs.
Members of one group also got as much as $750 in cash, with the payments spread out over time to encourage longer-term abstinence. Those participants got $100 for completing a smoking-cessation program, $250 if they stopped smoking within six months after enrolling in the study, and $400 for continuing to abstain from smoking for an additional six months.
All participants were contacted three months after they enrolled in the study and periodically after that. Those who said they had stopped smoking at any point during the study were asked to submit saliva or urine samples for testing so that their claims could be verified:
-- About 14.7 percent of the group offered financial incentives said they had stopped smoking within the first year of the study, compared with 5 percent of the other group.
-- At the time of their last interview for the 18-month study, 9.4 percent of the paid group was still abstaining compared with 3.6 percent of those who got no money.
Source: Kevin G. Volpp et al., "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Financial Incentives for Smoking Cessation," New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 360, No. 7, February 12, 2009.
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