It’s a crazy thing about teenagers who smoke. Unlike adults, who may feel guilty and weak when they light up, many teens are too young-and-dumb to feel that way—in fact, smoking makes them feel cool and grown up.

So even when a teen smoker gets a notion to quit, it can be very hard to do. What’s even more horrifying is a new report from the US Surgeon General’s office that shows that one in five American teens smokes. What’s worse, the report also shows that their quitting rate has declined in the past few decades—80% continue to smoke as adults.

The promising news is that there’s a new, free service that can help teens quit cold turkey: SmokefreeTXT, an interactive text-messaging program developed by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Health and Human Services.

I spoke with Erik Augustson, PhD, MPH, a behavioral scientist with NCI’s Tobacco Control Research Branch, who studies smoking cessation and helped develop this unique service for teens.


Why try to reach teens through texting? About 75% of American teens have cell phones, and most of them have text-messaging plans, Dr. Augustson said. “It’s the most common way they communicate.”

SmokefreeTXT is available on all cell phones and through all carriers. There’s no charge—the only potential cost is whatever the teen’s carrier charges per text message, and most teens have unlimited texting plans.

When your child or grandchild signs up, he’ll receive…

  • Timed texts. First, the teen sets a goal for his/her “quit date.” As the date gets closer, the teen receives a growing number of texts reminding him of the date and encouraging him to go forward with the plan. One day, the text might say, “Three more days! Drinking lots of water on quit day will fight off cravings and keep you hydrated.” The next message might be, “Your pet can get sick and die from secondhand smoke, so think again before you light up.” These messages of encouragement will continue for up to six weeks after the designated quit date because, Dr. Augustson said, relapses occur most frequently in the first two weeks after a person quits, and six weeks is often a turning point toward cessation.
  • Key word texts. Whenever the teen stops smoking, if he is having trouble sticking to his goal, he can send simple one-word texts to the service, choosing from one of three “key words”—“cravings” if he’s really dying to light up…“mood” if he’s feeling down…or “slipup” if he relapsed and wants to get back on track. In response, the service will immediately send back a text message with a tip on how to conquer one of those challenges. To overcome a craving, the tips might include shooting hoops or cranking up an iPod. To get past a mood problem, the tips might include deep breathing or calling a friend. And to conquer a slipup, the tips might include messages like “You didn’t fail—just get back on track and try again.”
  • Assessment texts. Users of SmokefreeTXT also receive texts every few days asking how they are doing—the program will pick one of the three topics (craving, mood or slipup) at random, ask how the user is handling that particular issue, and offer a range of responses to choose from.


Instead of using adult language, the service tries to connect with teens, specifically, by using what Dr. Augustson calls “teen speak.” For example, users can describe their mood as “cool,” “eh,” or “sucky.”

There are no stats yet on how effective this particular texting program is, since it’s new, but I look forward to seeing whether it works. While the government has sent out health tips via text in the past, it’s never before offered an interactive component that allows users to text back. Because the program allows teens to engage with it, it’s more than just a reminder service—it’s like having a robotic counselor who is there for you 24/7.

If you’d like your child or grandchild to sign up for the automated service, encourage him or her to visit the Web site or text the word “quit” to IQUIT (47848).