Digital transformation continues to take over various fields and industries, resulting in greater productivity and efficiency – with healthcare being no exception. A previous post illustrates how technological giants have been pivotal in streamlining the healthcare supply chain and expanding public access to essential health services. For example, Amazon has implemented Amazon Care, a service that connects patients to their network of healthcare professionals for seamless communication. Meanwhile, Microsoft developed the digital health solution Microsoft Genomics to provide modern genome analysis tools and help the healthcare industry meet its sequencing needs.
Another aspect of public health where digital technologies and advancements can particularly help is tobacco control and cessation. Although smoking rates have gradually declined over the years, the tobacco epidemic remains one of the biggest public health threats worldwide. Tobacco smoking is responsible for the deaths of over 8 million people a year around the world, with more than 7 million due to direct tobacco use, while around 1.3 million cases are the result of exposure to secondhand smoke.
Although health organizations and governments have implemented policies to regulate and prevent tobacco use, these efforts can be bolstered by the use of technology for tobacco control and cessation. Thus, this article examines how new technologies help reduce smoking rates and tobacco-related disease and mortality.
Web-based resources for tobacco control advocacy
Since mass media can reach millions of people, it used to be the primary medium for tobacco control, prevention, and cessation. Across communication channels like television, radio, newspapers, billboards, posters, and leaflets, governments and their respective health departments disseminated information about tobacco’s adverse health effects and encouraged smokers to quit.
However, as more people nowadays rely on the Internet and social media to gain health information, health organizations have translated their tobacco control advocacy into more accessible, wide-reaching web-based resources. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health created the Smokefree.gov website to raise awareness about the harms of smoking and help people find effective ways to live tobacco-free. Among the free resources available on the website is a guide to creating a quit plan.
Use of synthetic nicotine in cessation products
Since smokers experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms, especially during early cessation, they can use nicotine replacement products to ease the process. These products must stay tobacco-free to reduce health and environmental impact while still containing low nicotine doses. Thus, companies made a breakthrough by synthesizing nicotine in a lab and using it in oral nicotine products like pouches, which deliver nicotine into the bloodstream after being placed under the upper lip.
Aside from accessing such innovative cessation products in pharmacies and convenience stores, a wide range of nicotine pouches use synthetic nicotine instead of tobacco-derived nicotine are available online. Smokers can choose from various flavors and strengths from popular brands like ZYN, On!, Rogue, and VELO to match their smoking history and achieve long-term cessation.
Telehealth to access clinical treatment
In addition to cessation aids, smokers can consult doctors to treat tobacco use disorder. This clinical approach enables them to better understand their risk of developing tobacco-related diseases like heart disease and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) and thus seek appropriate medical intervention. However, patient-level barriers to in-person tobacco cessation treatment remain, from the shortage of health specialists to the transportation and healthcare costs incurred by hospital visits.
In this light, telehealth emerged as a way for smokers to consult with physicians and receive clinical treatment remotely, reducing costs and waiting times for more successful cessation. Among the main pathways to telehealth are the free quitlines available in every state and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These quitlines provide essential treatment and services, from expert counseling to pharmacotherapy guidance using prescription and over-the-counter quit-smoking medications.
Smartphone apps for behavioral treatment
Smartphone apps have also played an essential role in decreasing smoking rates and motivating smokers to quit. These apps are typically free or low-cost, meaning 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion smokers who are in the low-income bracket can use them. Moreover, they complement clinical and pharmacological approaches by introducing healthy habits and behaviors among smokers.
Among the mobile cessation apps found to be effective among adult smokers are quitSTART, a free app that provides tailored tips, inspiration, and challenges, and QuitGuide, which helps individuals understand their smoking patterns and monitor cessation progress. Research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry also notes that these apps were more functional and contributed to prolonged abstinence (more than two weeks) when users utilized and responded to notifications.
AI-assisted chatbots as cessation support
The increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) has also helped develop chatbots that can provide 24/7 support to smokers trying to quit. A scoping review of AI-assisted chatbots published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research explains that these tools were generally effective for smoking cessation, especially when based on evidence-based approaches like motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, and relapse prevention techniques. Some chatbots integrated into messaging apps like WeChat provide group-based announcements, reminders, and ideas, while others tailor their support and advice to individual users’ cessation progress.
For example, CureApp utilizes an AI nurse that responds with personalized recommendations when users send a message signifying that they are going through cravings or withdrawal symptoms. Meanwhile, a UK-based supportive chatbot guides users through the national smoking cessation program by checking in twice a day and using positive reinforcement for smoke-free milestones.
The future of technology in tobacco control measures
Clearly, there are limitless opportunities to integrate technology into tobacco control and cessation to make treatment more accessible, affordable, and effective. Aside from scientists and academics continuing to share their novel approaches and breakthroughs, health systems and governments must invest in tobacco research and development to bring these discoveries within public reach. In doing so, more smokers will be made aware of the approaches they can take to live healthier, smoke-free lifestyles.
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