NCI's Yvonne Hunt: With mHealth in Public Health, Key Word is Potential

Dec 6, 2011, 6:43 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

 Hunt_Yvonne Yvonne Hunt, National Cancer Institute

After a soft launch a few months ago, yesterday the National Cancer Institute officially introduced SmokefreeTXT, a free (for those with unlimited texting plans) smoking cessation service that provides 24/7 encouragement, advice, and tips to teens trying to quit smoking.

Once they sign up, teens receive text messages timed according to their selected quit date. Following their quit date, they continue receiving texts for up to six weeks. Yvonne Hunt, PhD, MPH, program director of the Tobacco Control Research Branch at the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, says that is a critical piece of the SmokefreeTXT service because research shows that cessation support continues to be important beyond the first few weeks of quitting. Teens can sign up online at or text QUIT to iQUIT (47848).

Hunt presented at the mHealth Summit yesterday on the topic of "The Intersection of Mobile Health and Public Health: Towards Greater Understanding and Collaboration." NewPublicHealth spoke with Yvonne Hunt about the new mobile program and the potential for mHealth in public health.

>>Follow NewPublicHealth coverage of the mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C.

NewPublicHealth: What do we know so far about the potential for the text messaging approach to quitting smoking and influencing other health behaviors?

Yvonne Hunt: At this point the key word is promise or potential. We’re just at the beginning of understanding how mHealth interventions affect quit rates for teens and adults. I share the enthusiasm of the developers at the mHealth summit because especially with teens we think we have the potential to connect audiences to cessation support in a way we haven’t been able to before, that has great promise.

The content of the text messaging program is evidence-based, it’s been tested. What we’re waiting for is whether the new platform—text messaging—has an impact on quitting. Either as a stand-alone program or as perhaps integrated with other services. The real value may be to link to other evidence-based services.

NPH: Could getting texts outside their social lives be seen as unwanted by teens?

Yvonne Hunt: That is one of the empirical questions. Our hypothesis is that because teens live and die by their phones, we can make an inroad. But it’s possible they may view it as spam. What may give us an edge is that they have to request the service.

NPH: How are you doing that?

Yvonne Hunt: We have a pretty comprehensive marketing and promotion strategy. We’ll be rolling out a social media strategy including Facebook, Twitter and a tumblr page. And I think this will be an important test of the potential for mHealth programs to impact unhealthy behaviors among teens and promote healthy behaviors. SmokefreeTXT is a key component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' efforts to develop mobile health programs and is one of the key features of the new SmokeFree Teen initiative, an extension of NCI’s smoking cessation website, In January 2012, SmokeFree Teen will launch a free Smartphone application, QuitSTART—an interactive quit guide for teens that delivers cessation and mood management tips, tracks cravings and monitors quit attempts on several mobile platforms.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.