There seems to be “an awareness day” for every health issue on the planet — cancer (every type of it), autism, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, human trafficking, family literacy, world thinking, rare diseases and more.

The question is do they work — and the answer is yes, for the Great American Smokeout, which is one of the longest running awareness events in the nation aimed at smoking cessation.

A group of researchers studied whether these awareness days actually make a difference. Prior to the study, which was published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, there had been virtually no measurement of these days’ effectiveness. How does one know, for example, if World AIDS Day or Hand Hygiene Day has any impact?

In the age of technology, it now comes down to data.

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The team assessed the effect of the Great American Smokeout, held on the third Thursday of every November. It evaluated news reports on smoking cessation and tweets encouraging cessation to see if the message was shared and heard. Researchers then looked at whether or not Americans searched for resources to quit smoking, such as calling quit hotlines (the data went back to 2009).

Co-author Benjamin Althouse, a research scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling and the Santa Fe Institute, said the team was able to track how the message moved across news and social media, and how the public reacted to it.

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On the day of the Great American Smokeout, there was a 61 percent increase in smoking cessation news reports and a 13 percent increase in tweets encouraging others to stop smoking. Other than New Year’s Day, when people typically try to quit as part of a resolution pact, it was the second-highest day of news coverage about smoking cessation.

Google searches such as “help quit smoking,” rose about 25 percent on the day of the event. Visits to the Wikipedia smoking cessation page and calls to quitlines typically went up by 22 and 42 percent, respectively. Annually, there were about 61,000 more instances of unique Google searches, Wikipedia visits and calls to quitlines than expected.

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“Our study shows how we can rapidly and efficiently evaluate hundreds of awareness days, many for the first time,” John W. Ayers, a professor involved in the research from the San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health, said in a statement.

Real-Time Results
Other health campaigns may be able to use their methods to gauge the efficacy of their awareness day efforts.

“By directly observing these outcomes in near real-time, the goal of awareness days can be expanded,” Ayers told LifeZette. “We should start to think about how to target additional resources to take advantage of increased engagement, to make sure those seeking resources get them.”

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Social media is not the only place where messages are spread. But it can be a useful resource for engaging others and measuring results.

“The world is full of advocacy-oriented people connected to each other via social media; it certainly seems possible a well-designed advocacy message timed at the right moment could go viral on social media and translate to real-world health outcomes,” Eric Leas, a student of health communication at the University of California San Diego and study co-author, told LifeZette.

A challenge in evaluating awareness days has been a paucity of data, Leas noted.

“Most people don’t want the government following them around for two weeks monitoring when and how they try to quit smoking,” he said. “But data sources like Wikipedia, Google and quitlines provide clues to what the public might be thinking at certain points in time.”

He added, “When multiple data sources that serve as proxies of thoughts or behaviors indicate increased interest — there is more certainty an event is having an impact.”