09/05/2013 03:53 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

In-person support, traditional ads best to help young smokers butt out: research

TORONTO - They may be plugged into social media, but digital tools alone don't appear to be the most effective way to help young adult smokers butt out, according to new research.

Commissioned by Health Canada, eight focus groups were held last February in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg to look at issues related to quitting smoking.

The target audience was young adults aged 20 to 24 who smoked either on a daily or occasional basis. Most participants smoked in the range of five to 10 cigarettes per day, with the majority having lit up for five years or more.

The study found that participants who smoked at home reported taking part in a variety of activities while indulging in the habit, including texting, checking email and surfing online. But when it came to resources to help them butt out, receptiveness was "limited" to specific forms of support through social media, like peer support through an online message board or Facebook page, Twitter posts, texts, support emails or Facebook messages delivered through their news feeds.

What's more, young adult smokers tended to be more interested in receiving in-person support versus online. Some explained a lack of interest in going the digital route by suggesting individual discipline was key to remaining smoke-free — a signal that quitting is typically a solo effort.

In weighing use of social media and "digital engagement tactics" to help young adult smokers quit, the report concluded that it shouldn't be taken for granted that widespread use of online tools will ensure success, noting that they are mainly used for "entertainment or diversion."

"While young adults are online and engaged in the digital environment, traditional advertising is still very important to them. Feedback from the groups suggests that young adults are likely to notice billboard and poster-style ads (or have been conditioned to) in places they go," the report read.

"An integrated approach to advertising and promotion using a combination of social media and traditional media is recommended in order to effectively reach this audience."

Focus group participants didn't entirely dismiss use of virtual media as a means to help kick the habit. In fact, participants expressed "moderate interest" in various digital resources, seeing them as another form of assistance that "could be added to their toolkit."

When asked about the "Break It Off" initiative developed by the Canadian Cancer Society, most participants said traditional media would be the best way to reach them and their friends with the campaign message, with suggestions including communicating via TV, radio, posters, billboards and magazines.

Some participants suggested advertising in places where young people smoke or purchase cigarettes as being an effective strategy. Others recommended incorporating elements of social media into the mix with ads on YouTube, Facebook or popular mobile apps, or using QR codes and texts to direct them towards the Break It Off website as an effective way of connecting with young adults.

Among digital tools, mobile apps were preferred by most participants, citing factors like ease of access, convenience and the ability personalize the service. Suggested features like cigarette counters, encouraging messages and the ability to access and connect with other app users were also noted.