Mobile app uses AI to help people quit smoking

  • May 2, 2023
  • Steve Rogerson

Researchers at the UK’s University of East Anglia have developed a mobile app that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help people give up smoking.

The Quit Sense app senses where and when someone might be triggered to light up. It detects when people are entering a location in which they used to smoke and then provides support to help manage people’s specific smoking triggers in that location.

A study shows how the app helped more smokers quit than people who were only offered online NHS support. The hope is that by helping people manage trigger situations, the app will lead more smokers to quit.

“We know that quit attempts often fail because urges to smoke are triggered by spending time in places where people used to smoke,” said lead researcher Felix Naughton from UEA’s School of Health Sciences. “This might be while at the pub or at work, for example. Other than using medication, there are no existing ways of providing support to help smokers manage these types of situations and urges as they happen. Helping people attempting to quit smoking to learn about and manage these situations is a new way of increasing a smoker’s chances of quitting successfully.”

Chloë Siegele-Brown from the University of Cambridge, who built the app, added: “Quit Sense is an AI smartphone app that learns about the times, locations and triggers of previous smoking events to decide when and what messages to display to the users to help them manage urges to smoke in real time.”

The research team carried out a randomised controlled trial involving 209 smokers who were recruited via social media. They were sent links by text message to access their allocated treatment. All participants received a link to NHS online stop smoking support but only half received the Quit Sense app in addition.

Six months later, the participants were asked to complete follow-up measures online and those reporting to have quit smoking were asked to post back a saliva sample to verify their abstinence.

“We found that when smokers were offered the Quit Sense app, three-quarters installed it and those who started a quit attempt with the app used it for around one month on average,” said Naughton. “We also found that four times more people who were offered the app quit smoking six months later compared with those only offered online NHS support.”

A limitation of this relatively small study was that less than half of the people who reported quitting smoking returned a saliva sample to verify they had quit smoking. And more research is needed to provide a better estimate of the effectiveness of the app.

The UK’s health minister Neil O’Brien said: “Technology and smartphones have a role to play in driving down smoking rates, which is why I’ve set out our plans to explore the use of QR codes in cigarette pack inserts to take people to stop-smoking support. Making better use of technology – alongside the world’s first national swap-to-stop scheme and financial incentives for pregnant women alongside behavioural support – will help us to meet our smokefree ambition by 2030, reduce the number of smoking-illnesses needing to be treated, and cut NHS waiting times.”

This study was led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with researchers from the University of Cambridge, Norwich Clinical Trials Unit, University of Nottingham, King’s College London, University College London, and Imperial College London.

The research was published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research. Funding for the Quit Sense app has come from the National Institute for Health & Care Research (NIHR) and the Medical Research Council.