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‘Helpers Stay Quit’ Study Seeks to Keep Newly Quit Smokers from Relapsing

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“Helpers Stay Quit,” a new University of Arizona Health Sciences study, will examine whether a “reach out and help others” intervention strategy can increase a former smoker’s ability to influence active smokers in their personal network to quit, thereby creating a social environment supportive of long-term smoking cessation.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year, and tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of cancer and cancer deaths in the United States. Despite many advances in pharmacological and behavioral treatments for smoking cessation, the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions found that more than 50% of individuals who quit smoking relapse within the first year.

Myra Muramoto, MD, MPH, has more than 20 years of experience researching tobacco cessation strategies and developing tobacco cessation training programs.

Previous research has shown that personal networks exert a powerful influence on smoking and quitting behaviors, but relapse prevention interventions generally focus on the newly abstinent smoker and not the abstainer’s personal social network. Using a $3.1 million, five-year grant funded by the National Institutes of Health, Helpers Stay Quit will explore how personal networks might help people maintain long-term nicotine abstinence.

“One of the core principles of peer support programs and 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous is using one’s lived experience of recovery to reach out and help others who have a desire to quit,” said Tim Connolly, RN, MN, program manager for the study and a senior research nurse in the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson’s Department of Family and Community Medicine. “This is the first study to test this principle as a strategy to help persons who have quit smoking to remain abstinent.”

Connolly, and the project’s principal investigator, Myra Muramoto, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine, have more than 20 years of experience researching tobacco cessation strategies and developing tobacco cessation training programs.

The benefits the helpers derived from helping others was first described as the helper-therapy principle. Most often studied in the context of treating mental illness and substance use disorders, the helper-therapy principle has shown that receiving help from people who are also in recovery was associated with lower relapse rates and providing help to others was also beneficial for maintaining abstinence.

Helpers Stay Quit is the first study to examine the potential beneficial effects of the helper-therapy principle for individuals who have recently quit smoking.

Tim Connolly is the program manager for Helpers Stay Quit, which seeks to capitalize on social networks to help people quit smoking and avoid relapse.   The study will recruit 960 individuals who recently quit smoking after participating in tobacco quitline services. Study participants will be randomly assigned to two groups. Those in the intervention group will receive training in strategies for helping others quit tobacco, while participants in the control group will receive strategies aimed at reducing relapse and at the end of the 12-month program will be offered the training to help others quit.

A social network analysis will be conducted to study the dynamics of quitting smoking within each participant’s social group, particularly in relationships with others who use tobacco.

“Our hope for the ‘Helpers Stay Quit’ study is to gain a greater understanding of the dynamics of maintaining tobacco abstinence in the context of an individual’s personal social network, and to test the proposition that giving someone the skills, knowledge, and materials to help others quit will reinforce their own ability to avoid relapse,” Dr. Muramoto said.

The study is funded by the National Cancer Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health (#1R01CA248658-01A1).

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