JMIR Mhealth Uhealth
Background: Smoking rates are significantly higher among young people experiencing homelessness than in the general population. Despite a willingness to quit, homeless youth have little success in doing so on their own, and existing cessation resources tailored to this population are lacking. Homeless youth generally enjoy the camaraderie and peer support that group-based programs offer, but continuous in-person support during a quit attempt can be prohibitively expensive. Objective: This study aimed to assess the feasibility and acceptability of an automated text messaging intervention (TMI) as an adjunct to group-based cessation counseling and provision of nicotine patches to help homeless youth quit smoking. This paper outlines the lessons learned from the implementation of the TMI intervention. Methods: Homeless youth smokers aged 18 to 25 years who were interested in quitting (n=77) were recruited from drop-in centers serving homeless youth in the Los Angeles area. In this pilot randomized controlled trial, all participants received a group-based cessation counseling session and nicotine patches, with 52% (40/77) randomly assigned to receive 6 weeks of text messages to provide additional support for their quit attempt. Participants received text messages on their own phone rather than receiving a study-issued phone for the TMI. We analyzed baseline and follow-up survey data as well as back-end data from the messaging platform to gauge the acceptability and feasibility of the TMI among the 40 participants who received it. Results: Participants had widespread (smart)phone ownership—16.4% (36/219) were ineligible for study participation because they did not have a phone that could receive text messages. Participants experienced interruptions in their phone use (e.g., 44% [16/36] changed phone numbers during the follow-up period) but reported being able to receive the majority of messages. These survey results were corroborated by back-end data (from the program used to administer the TMI) showing a message delivery rate of about 95%. Participant feedback points to the importance of carefully crafting text messages, which led to high (typically above 70%) approval of most text messaging components of the intervention. Qualitative feedback indicated that participants enjoyed the group counseling session that preceded the TMI and suggested including more such group elements into the intervention. Conclusions: The TMI was well accepted and feasible to support smoking cessation among homeless youth. Given high rates of smartphone ownership, the next generation of phone-based smoking cessation interventions for this population should consider using approaches beyond text messages and focus on finding ways to develop effective approaches to include group interaction using remote implementation. Given overall resource constraints and in particular the exigencies of the currently ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, phone-based interventions are a promising approach to support homeless youth, a population urgently in need of effective smoking cessation interventions.