Trying to quit smoking as part of New Year's resolutions? Personalized phone counseling along with Web-based guidance may help, according to a study.

About one in five adults in the U.S. smokes, and about half of those who don't quit will die from the habit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventing, which also estimates that smoking costs the economy $183 billion each year.

Smokers who got phone calls from experienced counselors and took part in a Web-based cessation program had nearly double the quit rates after 18 months of smokers who just used the Web program, according to a study led by Amanda Graham, director for research development at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation.

This is one of the few large trials that have looked at the internet and telephone counseling combined, Graham told Reuters Health in an interview about the study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

U.S. smoking rates have declined dramatically, from about 30 percent of the population in 1985, but most smokers still make multiple attempts before quitting successfully.

Of all the people who try to quit without medication or counseling, fewer than 5 percent actually succeed, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Telephone counseling has proved to be one of the more helpful interventions, the study authors noted, and many phone counseling programs now offer an internet component.

The current study used, a website established in 1995 that has more than 60,000 monthly users. While basic membership is free, the premium version is $99.95 a year. One of the study's authors was a consultant to the site's owner.

Researchers randomly assigned about 2,000 smokers to one of three groups - those who'd receive phone counseling plus a premium QuitNet membership that let them set quit dates and track their motivations, those who got just the premium QuitNet membership, and those who used a static website created for the study that offered general advice on quitting.

After 18 months, 15 percent of the phone and premium net program participants reported not smoking since the start of the study, compared to 8 percent of the premium program users and 6 percent of the basic program users.

These were significant differences, even though they may look small, said Victor Strecher, professor of public health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the study.

In the study, five calls from a telephone counselor were concentrated during the first month of the smokers' attempt to quit, a time when they were most prone to relapse.

Strecher said he thought that having to attending counseling sessions in person or receiving too many phone calls might be off-putting, but that the targeted calls provided just enough extra encouragement.

Smokers tend to be mavericks, he said, noting that for this reason they often don't respond to an overly aggressive quitting program. But being able to use the Web at will, along with an occasional phone call, seems to work well.

I do think that smokers are very receptive to this kind of intervention, he said.


(Reporting by Leigh Krietsch Boerner at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)