This is a transcript of an article published in The Conversation. 

More Australians than ever are vaping, according to recently released data.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey shows the proportion of Australians aged 14 and over who, in 2022–2023, said they currently vaped was 7%. In 2019 it was just 2.5%. Users are most likely to be aged 18-24.

As we learn more about the potential harms of vaping, many will be keen to quit.

But because vapes have only been widespread in recent years, there is limited evidence on how to go about quitting. With the addictive nature of nicotine-containing vapes, it can also be hard to stop vaping on your own.

Could apps be the answer? The vast majority of young people have a smartphone. And we know apps have helped people quit smoking. So why not use apps to help people quit vaping?

But which apps are best? And which app features should you look for? Our recently published study gives us some clues.

We tested 30 apps

We searched the Apple iTunes and Google Play stores in May 2023 to identify apps available in Australia claiming to help people quit vaping.

We then made a shortlist of 20 iOS apps and ten Android apps to assess for:

  • quality (including ease of use, how it engaged users, appearance, and the information it conveyed)
  • the potential to change behaviour (including setting goals, making an action plan, identifying barriers, monitoring progress and giving feedback).

Here’s what we found

The highest rated app overall was the iOS app Quit smoking. Stop vaping app. This had 19 out of 21 features known to help people change behaviour.

The highest rated app for Android devices was Quit Tracker: Stop Smoking, with 15 behaviour change features.

The highest rated app for both Android and iOS users was the QuitSure Quit Smoking Smartly app. This had 15 behaviour change features for iOS users and 14 for Android users.

This ‘Quit smoking. Stop vaping app’ had the most features known to help people change behaviour.

So what should I look for?

There are key app features to look for in an app that could help you change your behaviour. These features also apply to apps helping people to quit alcohol, or to take more exercise, for instance. These features include:

  • full customisability, allowing individuals to tailor the app to their needs
  • goal setting, allowing individuals to create their own goals, monitor their progress, then update them over time. This is more likely to lead to positive behaviour change
  • external help, allowing users to access more help or advice, directly from the app
  • apps that are easy to use or navigate, so users are more likely to stick with the app.

But not all apps we assessed scored highly on these. On average, apps only had about nine out of 21 behaviour change features. And only 12 of the 30 apps included a goal-setting feature.

The overall quality of the apps was moderate – scoring about three out of five. While apps were easy to use and navigate, we found they were not always transparent in who funded or developed them.

Future apps

Earlier research shows quit smoking apps rate higher for their potential to change behaviour than ones to quit vaping.

In one study, researchers found more than half of users of one quit smoking app were still not smoking after a month.

So app developers could look at quit smoking apps to identify strategies and features to develop or update quit vaping apps.

App developers need to create apps with comprehensive goal-setting features. These apps need to be trialled or tested by the developer, users or an external party. This is important as, to our knowledge, no publicly available app has undergone such testing.

As many young people vape to relieve stress or anxiety, future apps could provide extra features, such as meditation, cognitive behaviour therapy and relaxation.

Apps need to align with current guidelines on how to quit vaping, so evidence-based messaging is consistent. Unfortunately, information and guidelines on quitting vaping are in their infancy and vary across different countries or jurisdictions.

Developers also need to ensure they disclose who owns and paid for the app. Is it a commercial company, a research group, a government agency, or a not-for-profit? We found it difficult to tell during our analysis.

Last of all, quit vaping apps need to be updated and improved over time, to iron out bugs, make improvements as the evidence changes, and to respond to changes in how users behave.

In an ideal world, we’d see partnerships between app developers, people who vape, researchers and experts in health behaviour change to develop and update quit vaping apps – ones with the highest chance of actually shifting people’s behaviour.

We wish to thank Lilian Chan, Rebecca Cerio, Sandra Rickards, Phillipa Hastings, Kate Reakes and Tracey O’Brien from Cancer Institute NSW for their assistance with this research.

View the original The Conversation article here.

A related article also appeared in The Geelong Advertiser on Friday 5 April 2024.