Effect of a Machine Learning Recommender System and Viral Peer Marketing Intervention on Smoking Cessation: A Randomized Clinical Trial

JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Jan 3;6(1):e2250665. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.50665.


Importance: Novel data science and marketing methods of smoking-cessation intervention have not been adequately evaluated.

Objective: To compare machine learning recommender (ML recommender) computer tailoring of motivational text messages vs a standard motivational text-based intervention (standard messaging) and a viral peer-recruitment tool kit (viral tool kit) for recruiting friends and family vs no tool kit in a smoking-cessation intervention.

Design, setting, and participants: This 2 ×2 factorial randomized clinical trial with partial allocation, conducted between July 2017 and September 2019 within an online tobacco intervention, recruited current smokers aged 18 years and older who spoke English from the US via the internet and peer referral. Data were analyzed from March through May 2022.

Interventions: Participants registering for the online intervention were randomly assigned to the ML recommender or standard messaging groups followed by partially random allocation to access to viral tool kit or no viral tool kit groups. The ML recommender provided ongoing refinement of message selection based on user feedback and comparison with a growing database of other users, while the standard system selected messages based on participant baseline readiness to quit.

Main outcomes and measures: Our primary outcome was self-reported 7-day point prevalence smoking cessation at 6 months.

Results: Of 1487 participants who smoked (444 aged 19-34 years [29.9%], 508 aged 35-54 years [34.1%], 535 aged ≥55 years [36.0%]; 1101 [74.0%] females; 189 Black [12.7%] and 1101 White [78.5%]; 106 Hispanic [7.1%]), 741 individuals were randomly assigned to the ML recommender group and 746 individuals to the standard messaging group; viral tool kit access was provided to 745 participants, and 742 participants received no such access. There was no significant difference in 6-month smoking cessation between ML recommender (146 of 412 participants [35.4%] with outcome data) and standard messaging (156 of 389 participants [40.1%] with outcome data) groups (adjusted odds ratio, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.61-1.08). Smoking cessation was significantly higher in viral tool kit (177 of 395 participants [44.8%] with outcome data) vs no viral tool kit (125 of 406 participants [30.8%] with outcome data) groups (adjusted odds ratio, 1.48; 95% CI, 1.11-1.98).

Conclusions and relevance: In this study, machine learning-based selection did not improve performance compared with standard message selection, while viral marketing did improve cessation outcomes. These results suggest that in addition to increasing dissemination, viral recruitment may have important implications for improving effectiveness of smoking-cessation interventions.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT03224520.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Behavior Therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning
  • Male
  • Self Report
  • Smokers
  • Smoking Cessation* / methods

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT03224520