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Is Bribing Smokers To Quit The Best Approach?

By McCarton Ackerman 08/19/16

A recent study examined whether a financial incentive could get smokers to kick the habit. 

Is Bribing Smokers To Quit The Best Approach?

If the overwhelming health benefits that come with quitting smoking aren’t enough of an incentive to stop, money might be. A new study has found that large financial incentives yielded higher success in getting low-income smokers to kick the habit.

The findings out of Switzerland were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Swiss researchers tracked 805 people for the study, who smoked an average of 16 cigarettes per day and earned an average income of $20,000 per year. Participants were randomly assigned to either receive no payment or payments that gradually increased the longer they abstained from smoking. The maximum amount they received was $1,650. Everyone in the study also had access to instructional booklets and a website with information on quitting smoking.

The researchers found that in the paid group, 44% of participants remained smoke-free after three months and 36% remained smoke-free after six months—compared to the non-paid group, of which only 6% were smoke-free after three and six months.

"In relatively low-income smokers who did not receive face-to-face counseling or medications, large financial incentives increase long-term smoking cessation rates," said lead researcher Jean-Francois Etter, a professor of public health at the Institute of Global Health of the University of Geneva.

However, the financial incentives proved less beneficial in the long term. Only 10% of people in the paid group continued to not smoke after 18 months, compared to 4% in the non-paid group.

The study also leaves several questions unanswered, the researchers say. Among them are how large and frequent payments need to be, as well as whether it might be more effective to offer compensation for enrolling in smoke cessation programs that focus on building motivation and skills, rather than simply quitting by itself.

But for obvious reasons, offering long-term financial incentives to smokers is not the most feasible idea, says Judith Prochaska, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University Medical School in California. 

The concept of paying addicts to stay clean has also been tested in a pilot program for heroin users at 33 clinics throughout the UK. In 2014, participating centers began offering drug users a £10 voucher ($13 USD) every time they provide a clean urine test at weekly check-ups. The results from this project are expected to be released later this year.

The money saved from not buying cigarettes is a pretty decent incentive in itself. According to, if you smoke a $5 pack of cigarettes a day, you can save $1,825 after one year. And if you manage to stay smoke-free for 20 years, you'll have saved over $67,000. 

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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