For millions of smokers itching to quit, new Web-based technologies are promising to stand by you like a close friend through those dark days of stress and withdrawal.
Internet sites and discussion forums dedicated to kicking the nicotine habit have been around for more than a decade.
Now they are following smokers to their mobile phones, social networks and anywhere else to remind them that it's not worth lighting up.
"Immediacy is one of the most critical parts of the program," said Jodi Kopke, media director at Colorado's State Tobacco Education and Prevention Partnership (STEPP).
"For someone to say they smoke at 7am, 12pm and 3pm and then to get a message right as they are about to get up and light up, that is so powerful."
Messages on phones and e-mail
Colorado's STEPP and Denver-based ad agency Cactus developed a message system on mobile phones with an Internet quit program.
Initially aimed at high school students in Colorado, the state hopes to soon share its fledgling FixNixer program as a technique for all age groups and geographies.
QuitNet.com, one of the most established websites for quitting, is also considering more tailored messages to users of its site and a foray into mobile, while quit support groups are popping up on social networks MySpace and Facebook.
"That is the next wave, to really blend user-generated pieces of the Web site," said QuitNet vice president, Jim Purvis, referring to information provided by smokers who want to quit. QuitNet is owned by Healthways Inc.
QuitNet already tallies the amount of money a member saves each year by trashing the cigarettes, but could send more tailored messages based on a person's known pastimes.
"If we know you like to golf, for example, we'll put up pictures of people who are outdoors or playing golf," Purvis said.
"The more a person comes back to the site, the more positively it is correlated that those people will be successful initially and able to maintain their quit."
While the rate of smoking in the United States has fallen significantly in the last four decades, tobacco use is cited as a cause of about 440 000 deaths every year.
Bans on lighting up in bars and restaurants, as well as ever-higher taxes on packs of cigarettes, have helped many people cut down or quit.
Support is key
But smokers who have tried say it takes a lot of support to get over the craving for nicotine, and many people who quit end up relapsing within the first year.
At FixNixer.com, a comprehensive questionnaire is geared to ascertain when, emotionally and at which times, a smoker is most likely to reach for a cigarette - is it after a meal, with a drink, in a stressful moment? - as well as the specific hours each day.
Members are asked what actions might best help them to weather a craving, from chewing gum to talking to a friend. They must also give detailed reasons for why they want to stop.
The data is translated into text alerts for a member's cell phone, so when quitters hit their most vulnerable hour, a message will appear on their phone reminding them not to smoke and suggesting a way to get past the urge.
An example for smokers who say they light up when there's nothing better to do: "Admit it. Being bored is a terrible excuse to use tobacco. Do you ever say 'I'm bored. I think I'll go expose myself to radiation'? No. Didn't think so."
Friends and family can be involved
A smoker can even reinforce those messages by allowing friends and family members to sign up and send them alerts. Online, they can blog their daily experiences - for better or worse - of life without tobacco.
"It reminds you of what your triggers are and how to deal with them, as well as your motivation for quitting," said Joe Conrad, president of Cactus Marketing Communications. "It forces people to internalise that process."
FixNixer.com is a free site, but only open to use with a Colorado postal code at this point.
Since launching in March, about 1 000 people have enrolled and participated in the program. Its creators are studying the longer term success rates of people who have used it to quit.
Cactus is also behind QuitDoingIt.com, an interactive site that helps teach smokers about the ills of tobacco and nicotine, including a videogame-like exercise to blast away excuses for smoking. – (Michele Gershberg, Reuters)
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