Every once in a while, Kotrina Lockard's cellphone buzzes with a text message -- a message of inspiration.
The first time, she read these words on the phone's screen: "Feeling light-hearted? You're not a ticking time bomb anymore. 20 mins after you quit smoking, blood pressure returns to normal."
Eight hours later, she got another message, informing her that her blood oxygen level would return to normal eight hours after she stopped smoking.
Lockard, 31, signed up for the text messages from the Rhode Island Department of Health in the hope they might help her quit smoking again. She'd been able to quit while pregnant, but resumed after her baby was born.
The text messages are providing an important nudge forward, she says. "It's making me think more about quitting," she says. "But it's hard. It's hard to quit!"
It is hard, and the Health Department's tobacco-control program, working on a shoestring, is trying everything it can to encourage and support smokers who want to stop. That includes venturing into the burgeoning new field of "mobile health," an unproven but promising way to improve health through cell phones.
Some 85 percent of Americans own cellphones, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. That means the reach of any mobile phone effort is potentially huge, especially among urban, lower-income people who often have poor access to health information.
Thousands of commercial smart-phone applications enable people to track their exercise routines, blood glucose, asthma symptoms or food intake. Public health officials are also tapping into this market.
"It's an incredibly limited tool," says Dr. Nathan Cobb, research investigator at the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies, in Washington, D.C. "But we can do it with anyone, anytime. It makes all those limitations worthwhile."
The phone is always in your pocket, so whenever the thought emerges that maybe it's time to quit, you can connect to help immediately.
"The social media piece in the (smoking) cessation environment is very new," says Rosamaria Amoros, a consultant with the state's tobacco-control program. "Folks are experimenting, and we're sharing, and we're learning from each other."
The texting campaign, which started in March and will continue through February 2012, costs a mere $18,000. That's half as much, Amoros says, as it would cost to run a 30-second ad on network television for three or four weeks (not including the cost of developing the ad).
In addition to the text messages, Amoros is taking an approach that no other state has tried: QR codes. These are patterns of squares that, when scanned with a smartphone, link to a website. The codes are displayed on bus-shelter ads, where people are likely to be standing around doing nothing, perhaps smoking. Those who scan the code will immediately link to the mobile version of the Health Department's website that provides a wealth of quit-smoking resources.
The cost of the QR code effort? About $25.
The text messages come at lengthening intervals -- 8 hours, 48 hours, 7 days and so forth, with eight messages spanning 90 days. "They are constant reminders of the damage (from smoking), but also how you can turn this around immediately," Amoros says.
Another feature is a ring-tone of someone coughing hard, a hacking, smoker's cough. It sounds awful -- and it's one of the most popular features in the campaign, with 101 downloads.
"The key thing is, you always have your phone with you," says R. Craig Lefebvre, a research professor at the University of South Florida who designs public health and social-change programs.
"These same kinds of ideas are being applied to obesity, losing weight, diabetes and asthma. "These new technologies empower people to try it again. The more often you try, the more successful you're going to be."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)