Background: Telephone services can provide information and support for smokers. Counselling may be provided proactively or offered reactively to callers to smoking cessation helplines.
Objectives: To evaluate the effect of proactive and reactive telephone support to help smokers quit.
Search strategy: We searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group trials register for studies using free text term 'telephone*' or the keywords 'telephone counselling' or 'Hotlines' or 'Telephone'. Date of the most recent search: September 2002.
Selection criteria: Randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials in which proactive or reactive telephone counselling to assist smoking cessation was offered to smokers or recent quitters.
Data collection and analysis: Trials were identified and data extracted by one person and checked by a second. The main outcome measure was abstinence from smoking after at least six months follow-up. We used the most rigorous definition of abstinence in each trial, and biochemically validated rates where available. Participants lost to follow-up were considered to be continuing smokers. Where trials had more than one arm with a less intensive intervention we used only the most similar intervention as the control group in the primary analysis. Where interventions were similar, we performed meta-analysis using a fixed effects model (Peto method) to give an odds ratio.
Main results: Twenty seven trials met inclusion criteria. Thirteen trials compared proactive counselling to a minimal intervention control. There was statistical heterogeneity, with five trials showing a significant benefit, and eight showing non significant differences. The heterogeneity was associated with trials that provided tailored self-help materials to the control group. Meta-analysis using all less intensive intervention arms as the control removed the heterogeneity and suggests that telephone counselling compared to less intensive intervention increases quit rates (OR 1.56, 1.38 - 1.77). Four trials adding telephone support to a face to face intervention control failed to detect a significant effect on long term quit rates. Four trials failed to detect an additional effect of telephone support in users of nicotine replacement therapy. Providing access to a hotline showed a significant benefit in one trial and no significant difference in two. No differences in outcome were detected in trials that compared different types of telephone counselling.
Reviewer's conclusions: Proactive telephone counselling can be effective compared to an intervention without personal contact. Successful interventions generally involve multiple contacts timed around a quit attempt. The available evidence neither confirms nor rules out a benefit of telephone counselling as an adjunct to face to face counselling or pharmacotherapy. Further trials randomising access to helplines are unlikely to be done but indirect evidence suggests they can be a useful part of a smoking cessation service.