The team from the University of California-Irvine and Stanford University found that a real-time, fully automated, Twitter-based smoking intervention programme called "Tweet2Quit" was twice as successful at kicking the habit as those using traditional ways.
"The results indicate significant possibilities for using social media as a delivery mechanism for health prevention intervention, specifically in smoking cessation," said Cornelia Pechmann, professor of marketing at the University of California-Irvine.
"Because of the low cost and high scalability of social media, 'Tweet2Quit' has tremendous potential to deliver low-cost tobacco treatments on a global scale," Pechmann added in a paper published in the journal Tobacco Control.
Pechmann along with Judith J Prochaska, associate professor of medicine at Stanford, found that 'Tweet2Quit' participants reported 40 percent sustained abstinence compared to 20 percent for control participants after 60 days.
"Tweet2Quit" uses a hybrid approach combining automated messages delivered to small, private, virtual self-help groups of smokers who are motivated to quit via the social media platform of Twitter.
The messages are based on clinical guidelines for smoking cessation and employ positive, open-ended questions that encourage online discussion, such as "What will you do when you feel the urge to smoke?"
On average, about 23 percent of tweets were in response to these automated texts, while 77 percent were spontaneous.
"Incorporating social media-delivered automessages written by tobacco treatment experts was effective in promoting smoking cessation," Pechmann noted.
"The twice-daily messages encouraged people to tweet their group members, which made them more accountable for quitting," the authors pointed out.
The online virtual support groups provide scientists with novel insights into the process by which smokers are committing to quitting and supporting each other in these efforts.
Beyond smoking cessation, the researchers will examine the potential of the internet and more specifically social media, to encourage and support small, virtual self-help groups for health promotion and disease prevention such as weight control and exercise.