Smoking still remains a huge public health challenge in the US and globally. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 80 percent of smokers live in low or middle-income countries. Though the US is not a low or middle-income country and smoking rates are at an all-time low, it is still widely prevalent among low-income populations.
In 2008, Gallup found that 34 percent of those making $6,000 to $11,999 per year smoke while only 13 percent of those with incomes above $90,000 smoked – a 21 percentage-point difference. A study featured in this month’s Health Affairs shows the trends in disparities between Appalachia and the rest of the US in life expectancy, infant mortality, and mortality from major causes of death. Smoking-related diseases accounted for more than half of the life-expectancy gap between Appalachia and the rest of the country.
Over the years, consumers have used many evidence-based smoking cessation tools: Medication and nicotine replacement therapies (NRT), support groups, telephonic and online health coaching, and financial incentives. Now, startups are coming to the market to offer other more technology-focused solutions – including wearables, mobile apps, and virtual reality.
Somatix, a digital health company, is using wearables to track unhealthy behaviors and send prompts to the wearer. Its product targets employer wellness programs and insurers. The wearable and feedback information allows the user to share the data with a physician, and help the user understand patterns in their behavior, to help them make changes.
Another startup, MindCotine, offers a virtual reality program combined with an app that guides the user through a meditation designed to quell nicotine cravings. Consumers would need to purchase a VR headset, which many are already purchasing for gaming purposes, and download the app. Chrono Therapeutics is aiming to integrate the pharmacological and behavioral approaches into one product. The company plans to offer a transdermal patch that delivers nicotine, but unlike traditional patches, the device delivers peak doses when a smoker is most likely to crave a cigarette. The patch also has a Bluetooth-enabled sensor that connects to a smartphone and delivers data to the user and to a coach who can help them plan next steps to quit.
Analysis: With 40 million smokers in the US alone, and with 7 out of 10 smokers trying to quit, there is a big market for smoking cessation products. The startups have different hurdles to overcome before they market their products. Studies show the virtual reality techniques have promising results, but most tobacco cessation specialists say more research on virtual reality is needed. One study out of the University of Houston demonstrated that smokers who received virtual reality therapy plus NRT had significantly lower nicotine cravings and smoking rates compared to the group that received NRT only. A small Canadian study showed smokers’ cravings were reduced when they participated in a virtual reality game involving seeking out and crushing cigarettes.
There are many wearables on the market and we know that for some people who want to use them to improve health-related behaviors, once the novelty wears off, the healthy change does too. Because the transdermal patch with a device is a drug/device combination product, the company will need to get approval from regulators in every country they hope to market the product, and one challenge is meeting the different requirements for different countries.
With smoking costs reaching $300 billion per year from direct medical costs and lost productivity, individuals trying to quit, insurers, employers, and other health care stakeholders are likely to be hoping that new, innovative solutions will boost cessation rates across the globe.
This weekly series explores innovative breakthroughs and new technologies that are driving momentum and change in the life sciences and health care industry.