Do incentives help keep young people from starting to smoke in the medium to long term?


Most smokers start smoking before they are 18 years old. Starting smoking earlier in life means a smoker will smoke for more years than someone who starts smoking later, which increases the health risks of smoking. Given the high amount of tobacco use among young people and the poor health outcomes that may result, finding ways to prevent young people from smoking is a public health priority. One new approach to stopping young people from starting to smoke is the use of incentives, where young people or groups of young people are rewarded for being smoke-free. The aim of this review was to assess the effect of incentives on stopping children and adolescents (aged 5 to 18 years) from starting to smoke.

Study characteristics

This is an update of a previous review. The first version was published in 2012 and included seven studies. For this update we searched for new studies in December 2016 and found one. This review now includes eight trials. Seven of these were trials of the 'Smokefree Class Competition' (SFC), which has been widely used throughout Europe. In this competition, classes (generally between the ages of 11 and 14 years) promise to be smoke-free for a six-month period. They report regularly on their smoking status, and if 90% or more of the class are non-smokers at the end of the six months, the class goes into a competition to win prizes. In the one trial that did not test the SFC, classes with the smallest percentage of students smoking at the school year's end were given rewards.

Key results

We assessed the results from seven trials of SFC and found that the competition did not have a significant impact on whether or not young people started smoking. As there was only one trial that was not of the SFC, we concluded that we do not have enough information to evaluate whether this programme was effective in preventing young people from starting to smoke. Potential negative effects of the SFC have not been widely researched, but the available data suggest that the SFC programme does not have any significant negative effects.

Quality of the evidence

We judged the overall quality of evidence to be low or very low, because it is based on a small number of studies, with imprecise effects and with a high or uncertain risk of bias.

Authors' conclusions: 

The very limited evidence currently available suggests that incentive programmes do not prevent smoking initiation among youth. However, there are relatively few published studies and these are of variable quality. In addition, trials included in the meta-analyses were all studies of the SFC, which distributed small to moderately-sized prizes to whole classes, usually through a lottery system. It is therefore possible that other incentive programmes could be more successful at preventing smoking uptake in young people.

Future studies might investigate the efficacy of a wider range of incentives, including those given to individual participants to prevent smoking uptake, whilst considering both the effect of incentives on smoking initiation and the progression to smoking. It would be useful if incentives were evaluated in varying populations from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and if intervention components were described in detail.

Read the full abstract...

Adult smoking usually has its roots in adolescence. If individuals do not take up smoking during this period it is unlikely that they ever will. Further, once smoking becomes established, cessation is challenging; the probability of subsequently quitting is inversely proportional to the age of initiation. One novel approach to reducing the prevalence of youth smoking is the use of incentives.


To assess the effect of incentives on preventing children and adolescents (aged 5 to 18 years) from starting to smoke. It was also our intention to assess, where possible, the dose-response of incentives, the costs of incentive programmes, whether incentives are more or less effective in combination with other interventions to prevent smoking initiation, and any unintended consequences arising from the use of incentives.

Search strategy: 

For the original review (published 2012) we searched the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group Specialized Register, with additional searches of MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, CSA databases and PsycINFO for terms relating to incentives, in combination with terms for smoking and tobacco use, and children and adolescents. The most recent searches were of the Cochrane Tobacco Addiction Group Specialized Register, and were carried out in December 2016.

Selection criteria: 

We considered randomized controlled trials (RCTs) allocating children and adolescents (aged 5 to 18 years) as individuals, groups or communities to intervention or control conditions, where the intervention included an incentive aimed at preventing smoking uptake. We also considered controlled trials (CTs) with baseline measures and post-intervention outcomes.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors extracted and independently assessed the data. The primary outcome was the smoking status of children or adolescents at follow-up who reported no smoking at baseline. We required a minimum follow-up of six months from baseline and assessed each included study for risks of bias. We used the most rigorous definition of abstinence in each trial; we did not require biochemical validation of self-reported tobacco use for study inclusion. Where possible we combined eligible studies to calculate pooled estimates at the longest follow-up, using the Mantel-Haenszel fixed-effect method, grouping studies by study design.

Main results: 

We identified three eligible RCTs and five CTs, including participants aged 11 to 14 years, who were non-smokers at baseline. Of the eight trials identified, six had analyzable data relevant for this review, which contributed to meta-analyses (7275 participants in total: 4003 intervention; 3272 control; 2484 participants after adjusting for clustering). All except one of the studies tested the 'Smokefree Class Competition' (SFC), which has been widely implemented throughout Europe. In this competition, classes with youth generally between the ages of 11 and 14 years commit to being smoke-free for a six-month period, and report their smoking status regularly. If 90% or more of the class are non-smokers at the end of the six months, the class goes into a competition to win prizes. The one study that was not a trial of the SFC was a controlled trial in which schools in two communities were assigned to the intervention, with schools in a third community acting as controls. Students in the intervention community with lower smoking rates at the end of the project (one school year) received rewards.

Most studies resulted in statistically non-significant results. Only one study of the SFC reported a significant effect of the competition on the prevention of smoking at the longest follow-up. However, this study was at risk of multiple biases, and when we calculated the adjusted risk ratio (RR) we no longer detected a statistically significant difference. The pooled RR for the more robust RCTs (3 studies, n = 3056 participants/1107 adjusted for clustering) suggests that there is no statistically significant effect of incentives, in the form of the SFC, to prevent smoking initiation among children and adolescents in the long term (RR 1.00, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.84 to 1.19). Pooled results from the non-randomized trials also did not detect a significant effect of the SFC, and we were unable to extract data on our outcome of interest from the one trial that did not study the SFC. There is little robust evidence to suggest that unintended consequences (such as making false claims about their smoking status and bullying of smoking students) are consistently associated with such interventions, although this has not been the focus of much research. There was insufficient information to assess the dose-response relationship or to report costs of incentives for preventing smoking uptake.

We judged the included RCTs to be at unclear risk of bias, and the non-RCTs to be at high risk of bias. Using GRADE, we rated the overall quality of the evidence for our primary outcome as 'low' (for RCTs) and 'very low' (for non-RCTs), because of imprecision (all studies had wide confidence intervals), and for the risks of bias identified. We further downgraded the non-RCT evidence, due to issues with the non-RCT study design, likely to introduce further bias.