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: January 2006.
Selection criteria: Randomized or quasi-randomized 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 (LS) and checked by a second (TL). The main outcome measure was the odds ratio for abstinence from smoking after at least six months follow up. We selected the strictest measure of abstinence, using biochemically validated rates where available. We considered participants lost to follow-up to be continuing smokers. Where trials had more than one arm with a less intensive intervention we used only the most similar intervention without the telephone component as the control group in the primary analysis. We assessed statistical heterogeneity amongst sub groups of clinically comparable studies using the I(2) statistic. Where appropriate, we pooled studies using a fixed-effect model. A meta-regression was used to investigate the effect of differences in planned number of calls.
Main results: Forty-eight trials met the inclusion criteria. Among smokers who contacted helplines, quit rates were higher for groups randomised to receive multiple sessions of call-back counselling (eight studies, >18,000 participants, odds ratio (OR) for long term cessation 1.41, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.27 to 1.57). Two of these studies showed a significant benefit of more intensive compared to less intensive intervention. Telephone counselling not initiated by calls to helplines also increased quitting (29 studies, >17,000 participants, OR 1.33, 95% CI 1.21 to 1.47). A meta-regression detected a significant association between the maximum number of planned calls and the effect size. There was clearer evidence of benefit in the subgroup of trials recruiting smokers motivated to quit. Of two studies that provided access to a hotline one showed a significant benefit and one did not. Two studies comparing different counselling approaches during a single session did not detect significant differences. A further seven studies were too diverse to contribute to meta-analyses and are discussed separately.
Authors' conclusions: Proactive telephone counselling helps smokers interested in quitting. There is evidence of a dose response; one or two brief calls are less likely to provide a measurable benefit. Three or more calls increases the odds of quitting compared to a minimal intervention such as providing standard self-help materials, brief advice, or compared to pharmacotherapy alone. Telephone quitlines provide an important route of access to support for smokers, and call-back counselling enhances their usefulness.