The World Health Organization has announced a new smoking cessation initiative that will combine free nicotine replacement therapies with an artificial intelligence-based “virtual health worker.”
The digital tool comes from virtual avatar maker Soul Machines, and aims to dispel misinformation about COVID-19 and tobacco use while helping develop personalized plans to quit smoking. Florence, as she’s called, simulates a face-to-face conversation by using a device’s microphone and camera to recognize and reply to spoken questions. It can be freely accessed online.
The Access Initiative for Quitting Tobacco will be piloted in Jordan, where tobacco use rate are among the highest in the world, according to the health organization. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health donated 37,800 nicotine patches to this initial effort, which will be delivered alongside Florence to 5,400 Jordanian smokers.
“We welcome the support of pharmaceutical and tech companies to improve people’s health and save lives during COVID-19,” Dr. Ruediger Krech, diretor of health promotion at WHO, said in a statement. “The partnership highlights what we can achieve when we work together both to end the pandemic and, moving forward, to build back better.”
The UN Interagency Task Force on Non-communicable Diseases, PATH and the Coalition for Access to NCD Medicines and Products are also supporting the initiative, alongside WHO and the private sector partners.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT
WHO is targeting the planet’s 1.3 billion tobacco users in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic that specifically targets individuals’ respiratory systems. The organization’s announcement highlighted the increased risk smokers face from the novel virus, and stressed the importance of effective cessation programs and pairing them with government-led tobacco control laws.
“There has never been a more appropriate time to support people in their efforts to quit tobacco use,” Dr. Adriana Blanco Marquizo, head of the Convention Secretariat for WHO, said in a statement.
THE LARGER TREND
The initiative’s aim to “promote digital cessation services and eHealth platform” falls in line with other efforts out of WHO that lean on digital technologies to provide large-scale support. In 2019 the public health organization released a set of guidelines for how countries can use digital health tools to improve patient care, and more recently has been working on a COVID-19 symptom app for countries that may not be able to develop such a tool themselves.
Smoking cessation has also been a common target for digital health. These approaches have ranged over the years from app- and breathalyzer-supported digital programs to virtual counseling to wearables to video games.