The federal government is spending more than $13 million on studies designed to determine how a variety of groups can learn to quit smoking.
This month the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a five-year study to Butler Hospital in Providence, R.I., to examine how exercise can get depressed smokers to stop. The first grant amounts to $581,991.
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The depressed are not the only ones to receive attention.
The agency is currently funding cessation studies for American Indians ($2,899,954); Chinese and Vietnamese men ($424,875); postmenopausal women ($4,151,850); the homeless ($392,322); Korean youth ($94,580); Schizophrenics ($266,554); Brazilian smokers ($174,637); Latino HIV-positive smokers ($223,265); and the LGBT community ($1,929,152).
Yale University is studying how to get"Heavy Drinkers" to stop smoking at the cost of $416,951 to the taxpayer. Other projects seek to use Twitter to provide "social support to smokers" ($659,469), and yoga ($1,178,011).
There are hundreds more active studies, and these projects alone total $13,393,611.
Dr. Michael Siegel, a physician and professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, says the NIH’s approach to smoking cessation is misguided.
He finds that quitting "cold turkey" and using electronic cigarettes have proven the most effective methods. However, these two areas are largely ignored and, in the case of e-cigarettes, actively attacked by the scientific community.
Siegel told the Washington Free Beacon that there are two faulty paradigms pervading tobacco control efforts: an obsession with nicotine receptors and the idea that smoking cessation is a long-drawn-out process.
"The most successful method of quitting is cold turkey, making an abrupt, all of a sudden smoking cessation," said Siegel, author of "The Rest of the Story," a tobacco policy blog.
Former smokers agree, according to a recent Gallup poll that found 48 percent said they "just quit," "decided it was time," or "quit cold turkey." Only five percent used a nicotine patch and one percent used nicotine gum.
"The varied strategies for quitting cited by former smokers suggest there is not a dominant ‘magic bullet’ method," Gallup said, "but rather just a basic decision at some point in smokers' lives to quit cold turkey."
The myriad methods being studied by the NIH suggest they are looking not just for the "magic bullet," but one for every "underserved population."
Results have been inconclusive.
The University of Connecticut School of Medicine has been studying smoking cessation outcomes for postmenopausal women since 2009 and has only one published report. The report found that quitting smoking "may be associated with increased fat and muscle mass in postmenopausal women."
The University of Kansas has been working to combat "disparities in tobacco prevalence and access to treatment" in Brazil since 2010. The project, which is creating a registry of smokers in the South American country, has yielded no published results thus far.
"I wouldn’t go so far to say that [these are] fruitless," Siegel said. "There are important objectives. Looking at targeted populations is important to understand what methods might be effective with certain demographics."
However, Siegel pointed to the NIH’s faulty approach in looking at nicotine replacement as the "be all end all" of smoking cessation, and meanwhile shunning the greatest innovation he has seen: the electronic cigarette.
"The thing about electronic cigarettes is they replace all the other aspects of smoking," he said. "They look like cigarettes, they feel like cigarettes, you hold them, you see the vapor, there’s a throat hit that you get. You can associate the same feelings with smoking."
Siegel said most tobacco groups are not embracing e-cigarettes as a breakthrough, but actually attacking the method, arguing it will increase smoking and is bad for public health.
A search of active NIH grants finds only six studies devoted to the product, and none are positive. The projects are examining the possible abuses and "potential toxicity" of e-cigarettes. One hypothesizes that they will "cause lung disease."
Another study suggests they should not be allowed indoors because "clean indoor air laws may be compromised, or at the very least complicated."
"Here is an innovation that really adds something and instead of responding and saying, ‘Wow this is an innovation that we didn’t have,’ the medical community, scientific community is saying this is a danger, ‘We have to get rid of these things,’" Siegel said.
Ultimately the best method lies in people making a conscious decision to quit, Siegel said.
"In my experience when you talk to people who have quit successfully they will tell you not the story that, ‘Oh yeah, little by little and finally I quit,’" he said.
"They’ll tell you, ‘Oh, one day I found out my friend got diagnosed with lung cancer and I just threw all my cigarettes away and that was the end of it.’"
"The federal government, I believe, should be putting more emphasis and more money into stimulating these sudden quit efforts," he said. "And the way you do that is advertising and media campaigns."
The NIH did not respond to requests for comment.