Houston Firm Can Stop Your Smoking Habit -- Online!!

Teh Internets can solve almost any problem, it seems, from having to pay for music and news to bringing down Islamofascist dictatorships. Now smoking has apparently joined the list.

A small Houston company that runs interactive pay-sites to help with compulsive hair-pulling and skin-picking disorders (called trichotillomania) recently made the jump to nicotine addiction. Think self-help book meets Choose Your Own Adventure meets Rosetta Stone -- at least from what we can tell from the tutorial. (We weren't about to fork over the $39.99, and it's impossible to work the typewriter without a cigarette dangling from our lips.)

A friendly computer lady at daretoquit.com guides you through the six-week program (after that it's another $14.99 a month) and rewards you with dances and happy sounds when you perform well. Users are supposed to log each smoking "episode" on the site.

What were you doing when the smoke occurred? Answers include "Reading," "Relaxing after sex" and "Laying in bed" (our favorite time for a cigarette is in the morning as the alarm's going off). How did you feel? "Elated." "Sad."

After a while, the idea is, the program can identify and even graph smoking patterns and triggers and then offer personalized suggestions -- take deep breaths; put something else in your mouth. Users also receive generic daily lessons, and the computer lady applauds or scolds depending on the progress. On our computer, which has been sitting on the main page for awhile, she's currently making a smoothie.

Will this actually work?

Suzanne Mouton-Odum, PhD., the Houston psychologist who co-founded the company, says the program treats smoking as a behavioral issue -- much like trichotillomania, in which she and the other founder specialize. The new site, in fact, is remarkably similar to stoppulling.com and stoppicking.com. All even have an identical "4 steps to success" plan: "Sign up," "Monitor your behavior," "Learn coping strategies" and "Maintain success."

"We found a model that works, and so we decided not to change it too much," Mouton-Odum says.

A skeptical Hair Balls checked in with Christina Pearson, the founding director of the Trichotillomania Learning Center, and Fred Penzel, PhD., who's written a book on the disorders and treated them for 27 years. Both gave rave reviews, in part because it's so tough to find specialists for the problem.

But the leap from trichotillomania to cigarette smoking isn't a sure thing.

"Some people have tried to characterize [trichotillomania] as being part of an addictive model," Penzel says. "But the jury's still out on it."

For the new project, Mouton-Odum brought on Joy Schmitz, PhD., a psychologist and professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston who specializes in substance abuse and addiction. Even so, without hard evidence on smoking cessation Web sites, it remains to be seen whether the mighty Internet can again save the day.

"We're pioneers, I would say, in this field," Mouton-Odum says.

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Mike Giglio
Contact: Mike Giglio