Smokers can use a virtual anti-smoking program to help reduce tobacco addiction, according to research published in CyberPsychology and Behavior (2009; 12[5]:477-483).

Using a psychosocial treatment program in a computer-generated virtual reality environment, researchers randomly assigned 1 group of smokers to simulate crushing virtual cigarettes, while the other group of smokers grasped virtual balls during 4 weekly sessions.

Nicotine addiction among the smokers in the cigarette-crushing group was significantly reduced compared to those in the ball-grasping group. Furthermore, at week 12 of the program, the smoking abstinence rate was significantly higher for the cigarette-crushing group (15%) compared to the ball-grasping group (2%).

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Additional findings revealed that smokers who crushed virtual cigarettes tended to stay in the treatment group program longer than the ball-grasping group and at the 6-month follow-up, 39% of the cigarette crushers reported not smoking during the pervious week compared to 20% of the ball graspers.

The authors suggest that the findings may have less to do with behavior change and more with retention in the counseling and self-help program. “Crushing virtual cigarettes may have made patients more willing to come to their regular meetings with the nurse,” the authors noted. They offer a second explanation, which focuses on the association between positive mood and behaviors associated with smoking cessation. “For a person addicted to tobacco, seeing smoking-related stimuli elicits a conditioned response that triggers the desire to smoke and the affective, cognitive, and motor responses associated with smoking.”

“It is important to note that this study increased treatment retention. All too often individuals drop out of treatment prior to completion. It will be interesting now to go further and compare this to other popular treatments such as the nicotine patch,” concluded Brenda Wiederhold, PhD, MBA, BCIA, Editor-in-Chief of CyberPsychology and Behavior.