Quit smoking by using Facebook

At 3am on Jan 1st 2010 my cousin-brother stubbed his last cigarette. New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking, lose weight, or change another bad habit are certainly not uncommon. Having tried — and failed — to quit a number of times before, my cousin took a bold, new approach to quitting. Whether a cleverly devised plan, or just a whim, he decided to post his quitting on Facebook.

On January 4th, four days after smoking his last cigarette, he updated his status: “bring it on day 5!” Within hours, three people responded that they “Like” his comment; five others commented favorably with messages such as “Good for you!!!” and “Keep it going, bro.”

Encouraged by the support he received, my cousin posted another update three days later. Using his iPhone he wrote that he ”is one week non-smoking!!!” Again, within hours, eight people responded that they liked his comment and another two offered congratulatory remarks.

Though he didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, my cousin was creating a community of supporters through Facebook. The scientific literature is filled with evidence on the value of peer support for behavior modification. The “T” in the START mnemonic for quitting endorsed by www.smokefree.gov is to “Tell family, friends, and coworkers that you plan to quit.” This recommendation is based on the notion that smoking is not purely a chemical addiction; it has important environmental, social, and cultural elements, too.

Our peers do not only provide support for quitting on good days; they are equally invaluable on bad days. Three days after his last post, my cousin started feeling lousy. He posted having “a crazy head cold. Never felt this crappy in several years.” While he may have had caught a cold, it is more likely that he was going through nicotine withdrawal. Was this a simple update or a call for help? Seven of his friends responded offering home remedies and supportive messages. The next day he was feeling better and posted, “Twelfth smoke free day!,” garnering nine “Like”’s and seven enthusiastic comments. He responded, “Thanks for all the support everyone. Really helps me to stay on the path.”

People who quit often benefit from the support of a physician and other health care providers. Whether it be in the form of counseling, pharmacologic support, or referrals studies show that people who quit with the support of a health care provider have a much higher chance of success.

The problem is that assistance is often needed in real-time. I once shadowed a tobacco cessation counselor at my hospital who offered his cell phone number to every patient he saw, but this kind of dedication is rare. My cousin’s next post read, ”19th smoke-free day in a row. Maybe enjoy a cigar on the 30th day…let me ask my doctor…?” Here, too, surprisingly Facebook offered a solution. I immediately responded applauding him for his progress but also gently suggesting that it was probably too early for a celebratory puff.

Real-time support is critical because the decision to quit smoking isn’t made once. It’s made every day – in fact multiple times a day – whenever the nicotine craving hits. This is a major reason why social networks are so critical. Week 3 he posted that he ”… is wondering why day 21 is harder than 3,4,5 and 6 combined.” While my cousin could have called up 10 of his friends and told them that he was having a difficult time that day, it was clearly easier and perhaps more effective to post about it instead. After seeing his post, I called him to get his mind off of smoking.

Research in smoking cessation and behavior modification has demonstrated the importance of social networks. In recent years, there has been fascinating research showing, for example, that overweight people are more likely to have overweight friends and that happiness is contagious. The challenge in modern day society is how to activate these social networks to affect good.

Previous generations made greater use of formal networks such as religious gatherings, town hall meetings, and social clubs. While these avenues are still important today, increasingly technology is playing a role in defining our communities. While e-networks are less personal, this is not necessarily always a bad thing, especially when it comes to changing bad habits. They also benefit from a wider reach, being more real-time, and increasingly more dynamic.

Whether by design or accident, my cousin stumbled on an innovative approach to leverage social networks to quit smoking. And quitting smoking is just one application of e-social networks. Imagine the analogy for weight loss: “I lost 2 lbs this week!” soliciting responses of “Way to go!”, and “Feeling too lazy to go to the gym” being met with “You can do it! The hardest part is getting there!!”

Finally, though it is not as readily apparent, my cousin is not the only one benefiting from his Facebook posts. The positive effects of social networks go both ways. Friends following his posts are no doubt taking note of his success and being motivated to better themselves. His last post reads: “Still at it 41 days now. Feeling great and about to start a kick ass work out regimen.” Who knows? If he starts posting about his work outs on Facebook, I may just go to the gym more often.

Shantanu Nundy is an internal medicine physician who blogs at BeyondApples.org.

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