Introduction: The Internet is revolutionizing tobacco control, but few have harnessed the Web for surveillance. We demonstrate for the first time an approach for analyzing aggregate Internet search queries that captures precise changes in population considerations about tobacco.
Methods: We compared tobacco-related Google queries originating in the United States during the week of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) 2009 cigarette excise tax increase with a historic baseline. Specific queries were then ranked according to their relative increases while also considering approximations of changes in absolute search volume.
Results: Individual queries with the largest relative increases the week of the SCHIP tax were "cigarettes Indian reservations" 640% (95% CI, 472-918), "free cigarettes online" 557% (95% CI, 432-756), and "Indian reservations cigarettes" 542% (95% CI, 414-733), amounting to about 7,500 excess searches. By themes, the largest relative increases were tribal cigarettes 246% (95% CI, 228-265), "free" cigarettes 215% (95% CI, 191-242), and cigarette stores 176% (95% CI, 160-193), accounting for 21,000, 27,000, and 90,000 excess queries. All avoidance queries, including those aforementioned themes, relatively increased 150% (95% CI, 144-155) or 550,000 from their baseline. All cessation queries increased 46% (95% CI, 44-48), or 175,000, around SCHIP; including themes for "cold turkey" 19% (95% CI, 11-27) or 2,600, cessation products 47% (95% CI, 44-50) or 78,000, and dubious cessation approaches (e.g., hypnosis) 40% (95% CI, 33-47) or 2,300.
Conclusions: The SCHIP tax motivated specific changes in population considerations. Our strategy can support evaluations that temporally link tobacco control measures with instantaneous population reactions, as well as serve as a springboard for traditional studies, for example, including survey questionnaire design.