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Quitting smoking isn't child's play. Or is it?

November 5, 2009 |  5:23 pm

You can play music on the iPhone with the Leaf Trombone app. Researchers believe they can come up with a similar app for smokers to help them quit smoking. Credit: Peter DaSilva/Los Angeles Times .
In a few years if you see a person nervously blowing on his cellphone for five minutes, do not call the cops. He might not be a crazy person who forgot to take his meds; he might just be a smoker trying to quit smoking.

Columbia University's Teachers College announced today that it received a  $150,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, through the foundation's Health Games Research national program to develop a smart phone app that emulates the physiological responses smokers get from smoking.

The first apps are likely to be for Apple Inc.'s iPhone or iPod Touch. The user would control the game by blowing into the device's microphone in response to different color and sound stimuli coming from the handset. Researchers hope that it will be able to elicit the same brain patterns, heart rate levels and relaxation responses that smokers get from smoking. The game, Lit: A Game Intervention for Nicotine Smokers, is expected to be released in about two years.

Breath therapy has been used to help smokers quit smoking for a while, but it's hoped that the game will  disseminate this technique to the masses. "You don't have to learn anything; the game will cause you to breathe the right way," said Charles Kinzer, professor of education in the Communication, Computing and Technology Program and the Game Research Lab at Teachers College.

Technology is being used in another way to help smokers quit smoking. Researchers at the GRAP Occupational Psychology Clinic and the University of Quebec in Gatineau recently found that smokers who crushed virtual cigarettes experienced a significant reduction in nicotine addiction.

Tobacco use is still the leading cause of death in the United States, according to a statement from Kinzer and the Lit project team. It added that 70% of adult smokers say they want to quit, and more than 40% try to quit each year.

Kinzer said, "If we can capitalize on the motivational aspect of games and the availability of mobile devices, there is tremendous potential to positively affect heath and wellness for smokers who want to quit, and this would have implications for healthcare costs as well."

--Melissa Rohlin