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Study: Financial Incentives Effective as Stop-Smoking Tactic

The World Health Organization says tobacco kills 6 million people yearly — a figure that is expected to rise to 8 million by 2030 unless urgent action is taken.

The World Health Organization has declared Sunday to be World No Tobacco Day, when smokers will be encouraged to lay down their cigarettes or other tobacco products for 24 hours. One of the newest aids to help people quit smoking does not involve pills, nicotine patches or classes, but good old-fashioned money.

A study published Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine found monetary incentive programs to be five times more effective than free smoking cessation aids.

The most effective of these programs plays on the human tendency toward risk aversion. According to lead author Scott Halpern, having people put their own money at risk if they don’t stop smoking is even more effective than simply giving people a cash award if they do quit.

In a study of monetary incentive programs involving smokers at a large U.S. drug sales company, employees who deposited $150, and received it back with an additional $650 when they stopped smoking, were twice as successful at quitting as those who were simply given $800 after they kicked the habit.

“We simply don’t wish to part with our own money," Halpern said. "And that explains why both relatively few people were willing to make that $150 deposit in the first place but also, among those who do, the skin-in-the-game approach is so overwhelmingly effective and far more effective and any smoking cessation strategy that has ever been tried.”

Halpern, a health policy analyst at the University of Pennsylvania, said the hundreds of dollars spent on monetary incentive smoking cessation programs are a bargain.

“Employers are spending somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000 per year to employ a smoker, above and beyond the costs to employ a nonsmoker," he said. "And that’s attributable to increased health care costs, reduced worker productivity, absenteeism and the like.”

Halpern said the same benefit in cost savings could apply to governments that also spend a lot of money on smokers.

Cigarette smoking is truly a global health problem. It's the No. 1 cause of preventable death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The WHO says that tobacco kills 6 million people yearly — a figure that is expected to rise to 8 million by 2030 unless urgent action is taken — and that an estimated 80 percent of the world's 1 billion smokers light up in developing countries.

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