When trying to quit smoking, it can help to keep your eyes on the prize — especially if that prize is $750.
A new study shows that smokers who earn financial incentives are three times more likely than others to kick the habit. In an experiment with nearly 900 smokers employed by General Electric, 15% of those given incentives were smoke-free after a year, compared with 5% of those who weren't eligible for cash rewards.
The study rewarded employees for incremental milestones — $100 for completing a smoking-cessation class, another $250 for being smoke-free after six months and $400 more for being smoke-free after a year.
"People are drawn to tangible things," says author Kevin Volpp, a doctor at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center and director of the Center for Health Incentives at the University of Pennsylvania. "It makes it easier for you to do in the short term what you know is in your long-term best interest."
The incentives paid for themselves in about three years, says co-author Robert Galvin, GE's chief medical officer. GE plans to offer a version of the smoking-cessation program next year, although officials haven't yet decided the amount of the incentives.
Tobacco taxes also provide strong incentives to quit, says the American Cancer Society's Tom Glynn, who wasn't involved in the study. Research shows that each 10% increase in the cost of cigarettes reduces the teen smoking rate by 7% and the adult rate by 4%.
He says he understands that some people may question the wisdom of paying people to do something that's in their own best interest. But he notes that we already pay for health problems caused by smoking and obesity, through private insurance premiums and taxes for Medicare.
In the study in today's New England Journal of Medicine, researchers gave everyone information about local smoking-cessation classes and the company's coverage of drugs designed to help them quit. Half were also offered incentives. Each group had about the same number of heavily addicted smokers.
Quitters need all the help they can get, Volpp says, noting that 70% of smokers want to quit but only 3% succeed each year. And the relatively low quit rates in his study — in spite of incentives — underscore how difficult it is to quit, even with help.
Glynn hopes the study will inspire other businesses to help employees quit. "In the long run," he says, "stopping smoking pays off for everyone."
For help with quitting, call 800-QUIT-NOW