Mindfulness App Helps People Avoid Smoking

Researchers tested a new way to bring smoking cessation to smokers with mood disorders—a group with high smoking rates but low success with traditional quitting methods.

The study, published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, was centered around using smartphones for mindfulness exercises—in combination with “contingency management,” or rewards for demonstrated improvement—during a quit attempt, and the results are promising.

At every stage of the study, the participants who used the mindfulness exercises had much higher rates of staying smoke-free than the participants who did not. Without mindfulness exercises, abstinence rates were 4.2% at week two, 8.3% at week four, and 4.2% at week 13; with mindfulness exercises, the rates were 40%, 36%, and 16% respectively.

Mindfulness App Produces Results

Dr. Danielle McCarthy
Dr. Danielle McCarthy

“My colleague leading this research, Haruka Minami, was inspired to evaluate a mindfulness app as a tool that could help people with emotional vulnerabilities resist the urge to smoke,” said Dr. Danielle McCarthy, a UW-CTRI researcher who worked on the project.

“Her work with the study of real-time relations between emotions and smoking lapses or relapses, as well as the emerging literature supporting mindfulness interventions as a way to help people respond to negative emotions in adaptive ways, made this small pilot study seem feasible.”

The study consisted of 49 participants: 25 were put in the “experimental condition” group, where they used the smartphone-assisted mindfulness exercises, and 24 were put in a group that received standard treatment.

The participants were then tested at weeks two, four, and 13 after their quit date to see if they had remained smoke-free, and to see how their respective quitting methods compared.

The experimental condition group had far and away higher abstinence rates than the standard treatment group, getting rates anywhere from quadruple to 10 times that of the control group.

“I was surprised by the high levels of engagement with the mindfulness exercises,” said Dr. McCarthy. “Engagement was daily, and the results speak for themselves. The program was even more successful than I had hoped.

“This study has demonstrated that it is feasible to bring smoking cessation treatments and change smoking in people who are often seen as some of the hardest to reach and treat, and that smartphones offer a promising way to do so. There are alternative ways to manage urges to smoke and negative emotions that do not carry the costs of smoking. People can live smoke-free without increasing their suffering.”