Background: The Internet is a viable channel to deliver evidence-based smoking cessation treatment that has the potential to make a large population impact on reducing smoking prevalence. There is high demand for smoking cessation information and support on the Internet. Approximately 7% (10.2 million) of adult American Internet users have searched for information on quitting smoking. Little is known about these individuals, their smoking status, what type of cessation services they are seeking on the Internet, or how frequently these searches for cessation information are conducted.
Objective: The primary goal of this study was to characterize individuals who search for smoking cessation information on the Internet to determine appropriate triage and treatment strategies. The secondary goal was to estimate the incidence of searches for cessation information using publicly available search engine data.
Methods: We recruited individuals who clicked on a link to a leading smoking cessation website (QuitNet) from within the results of a search engine query. Individuals were "intercepted" before seeing the QuitNet home page and were invited to participate in the study. Those accepting the invitation were routed to an online survey about demographics, smoking characteristics, preferences for specific cessation services, and Internet search patterns. To determine the generalizability of our sample, national datasets on search engine usage patterns, market share, and keyword rankings were examined. These datasets were then used to estimate the number of queries for smoking cessation information each year.
Results: During the 10-day study period, 2265 individuals were recruited and 29% (N = 655) responded. Of these, 59% were female and overall tended to be younger than the previously characterized general Internet population. Most (76%) respondents were current smokers; 17% had quit within the last 7 days, and 7% had quit more than 7 days ago. Slightly more than half of active smokers (53%) indicated that they were planning to quit in the next 30 days. Smokers were more likely to seek information on how to quit and on medications; former smokers were more interested in how to cope with withdrawal. All participants rated withdrawal information and individually tailored information as being more useful, while displaying little interest in telephone counseling, expert support, or peer support. Publicly available data from large search engines suggest that 4 million Americans search for resources on smoking cessation each year.
Conclusions: This study adds to the limited data available on individuals who search for smoking cessation information on the Internet, supports the prior estimates of the size of the population, and indicates that these individuals are in appropriate stages for both active cessation interventions and aggressive relapse prevention efforts. Continued development and evaluation of online interventions is warranted, and organizations seeking to promote cessation should carefully evaluate the Internet as a possible modality for treatment and as a gateway to other traditional programs.