Scientists at the University of Minnesota have found that smokers are more likely to kick the habit if a counselor calls them every month for a year with helpful tips.

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You won’t find the word “nagging” in the study. But scientists at the University of Minnesota have found that smokers are more likely to kick the habit if a counselor calls them every month for a year with helpful tips and nicotine patches.

Typically, stop-smoking programs last only eight weeks. Dr. Anne Joseph, a professor of medicine, and her colleagues found that they could boost the success rate as much as 75 percent by extending treatment to 12 months.

As part of the program, counselors stayed in touch with patients for a full year, calling some patients as many as 50 times. The counselors adopted what they called a “chronic disease”model of care, which meant they didn’t give up if the smoker relapsed. They encouraged smokers to keep trying and gave them the option of cutting back on tobacco use — at least as a first step.

“You could call it nagging, but we prefer to call it … persistent,” said Joseph.

In the end, 30.2 percent of the experimental group gave up smoking for six months or more — the benchmark of success — compared to 23.5 percent in the conventional program.

Stop-smoking programs generally have high failure rates.

“Unfortunately, most smokers relapse within three months of treatment,”Joseph and her colleagues noted in the study, published Nov. 28 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In this case, Joseph said, they mimicked the treatment plans for chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. That means working with patients over time, adjusting medications and offering encouragement.

“We would ramp up the phone calls to do what we call relapse-sensitive calling,”Joseph said, especially for the first week of abstinence, when smokers are most vulnerable to relapse. “Some people got really lots and lots of calls.”

The counselors tried to be sensitive. “It was intentionally nonjudgmental,” Joseph said. “And that’s probably the big difference between a mom and a counselor.”

The more intense program average $944 per person, about twice the cost of the eight-week program. But when the researchers adjusted for difference in the study groups, they found the experimental program was 75 percent more effective at getting smokers to quit long-term.

(Contact Maura Lerner at maura.lerner@startribune.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)