Pay smokers to quit, say Danish health activists

© Aly Song
Anti-smoking groups in Denmark want to help tobacco-dependent citizens to kick the habit by offering them financial rewards for quitting. Despite American success with similar programs, the Danish government does not fancy the idea of public spending.

Foundation TrygFonden – the company behind the idea – has received the backing of the Denmark’s national Cancer Society (Kræftens Bekæmpelse).

The plan is to copy American efforts that used financial incentives to encourage people to quit smoking. 

Back in May, the two programs that used money to get the American firm CVS Caremark’s employees to quit smoking were described in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

In one instance, workers had to deposit $150 in order to enter the program. If successful, they would get their money back as well as an additional $650. In the second case, smokers were awarded $800 for success without requiring a deposit. 

According to the findings, with the first program 52 percent of the participants were able to stop smoking for at least six months. Meanwhile, the second option requiring no deposit could only boast a 17 percent success rate. 

The journal concluded the results showed that people are “loss averse.” 

“They tend to dislike losses more than they like corresponding gains,” author Cass Sunstein wrote in an editorial ‘Nudging Smokers’. 

It is unclear which of the two models the Danish groups will opt for, but TrygFonden has stepped up, offering financial support for a trial program. 

TrygFonden spokeswoman Merete Konnerup told Danish tabloid newspaper BT that smoking is one of the largest health problems in Denmark. 

“Many would also like to quit, but it is just very difficult. Therefore we should go in with an open mind and see what we can do to help people,” Konnerup said. “The promise of a monetary reward – and with it, for example, a corresponding boost for the family to take a luxury holiday – might help people take the final step in the right direction.” 

The Danish Cancer Society also spoke out in support of the idea. “Some might find it controversial, but the promise of a financial reward is, in many respects, a very strong driving force, and if Danish trials can confirm the good American results, we have no problem with the method,” spokesman Niels Them Kjaer told BT.  

However, there has been fierce opposition to this kind of approach at the political level. Health Minister Sophie Lohde indicated that the country’s two largest parties in power – the Social Democrats and the Danish People’s Party – would not support the use public funds for such programs. 

“It’s not cheap to smoke so it is already a cash bonus in itself to stop smoking. And I think it is a slippery slope if we start paying residents to live healthier lives,” Lohde told BT.