When Mary McHale, a 25 year old from Green Lake, Washington, quit smoking last year, her mobile phone was a crucial tool she used in sticking to her goal. Each day, her family would send her inspirational phrases or frightening facts about smoking in text messages.
“It helped me keep focused and remember why I was doing this,” Mchale said.
Besides hypnosis, medication, or even a rubber band around the wrist, smokers can now turn to their cell phones to help them kick the habit. Mobile apps are stepping up as a constant companion to keep quitters on track and away from cigarettes – sometimes with the help of zombies.
Tom Glynn, Cancer Science and Trends director at the American Cancer Society, says there are about 200 apps available today designed to help users quit smoking.
One of those apps is “Zombie Smokeout,” a game released in November by the American Cancer Society for the iPhone, iPad and Android. The premise suggests our planet has been destroyed by second-hand smoke and the user must squirt nicotine-fueled zombies with a water gun to save the world.
The game is designed to help smokers resist their cravings. When they are dying for a cigarette they can play the game until the urge passes, Glynn says.
“It’s trying to help people deal with that indescribable feeling gnawing at you due to loss of nicotine,” he says.
The game targets younger smokers, including the 19 percent of high school seniors Glynn estimates are smoking across the country.
Another app, “QuitPAL,” was created by the National Cancer Institute to help people track the money they save, report health milestones and allow them to share their achievements on their social network.
Yet another option for smokers is, iQuit, which tracks the time between each cigarette and urges the user to wait longer between each smoke to ease them out of the habit.
Kelly McIvor, a Seattle mobile marketing expert and co-founder of Atomic Mobile, believes mobile devices can be helpful for users who want to stop certain behaviors.
“I think it has that power,” McIvor says. “Mobile is good for things happening right now. It satisfies an immediate need for something.”
When apps include a community aspect, McIvor says they can be especially effective.
“It’s helpful to be with other people trying to do the same thing,” McIvor says.
Alere Wellbeing, a Seattle-based tobacco cessation and weight loss program, is developing a new mobile app to help users stay connected to the company’s existing program.
The app will offer active support during the first two weeks of use and then encourage users to stay away from cigarettes in the following weeks. Users get daily tips, reminders of why they decided to quit, and an update on the money they have saved.
“The opportunity that apps have is that they allow the person to have the program with them wherever they go,” says Ken Wassum, director of Clinical Quality & Support at Alere.
Like Zombie Smokeout, Alere’s new app will offer users suggested distractions when they have a craving.
“What we know about coping strategies is that they work in the moment,” Wassum says. “Having a distraction like a game can be useful, but it’s only useful in getting through that urge. It will very likely be back in 20 minutes or an hour.”
While he believes in their potential, Wassum says there is no evidence suggesting that mobile apps can serve as a stand-alone treatment.
“The holy grail will be coming up with a phone app that’s engaging and consistent with what we know helps people quit,” Wassum says.