HEALTH & FITNESS

Can magnets help kick the habit?

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The product: If you've ever tried to give up smoking -- or been around someone who has--you've probably discovered that quitting isn't easy, even with the help of a patch, pill, gum or spray. Nicotine-replacement products work about 10% to 15% of the time. Prescription medications such as Zyban and the new drug Chantix can boost the odds for success to about 25% -- but there's still a roughly 100% chance of frayed nerves, foul moods and urges to light up.

That's the addictive power of cigarettes: Even if smokers could somehow hook themselves up to a nicotine drip, they'd probably still crave another puff.

Smokers are undoubtedly eager for a quick, effective, misery-free way to quit. And as a product called Zerosmoke proves, many will happily walk around with magnets on their ears if they think it'll improve the odds.

Zerosmoke is an acupressure product that promises to help smokers break their habit. Sold over the Internet for about $40 and advertised on TV, it consists of two small gold-plated magnets that fit on the top of the ear, one on the outside and one on the inside. The magnetic attraction keeps them in place and puts light pressure on the ear.

Users are instructed to wear the magnets two to four hours a day. They're also told to keep smoking. Within seven days, ads claim, addicts will no longer feel the urge to keep lighting up.

The claims: According to the Zerosmoke TV spot, even serial quitters can finally give up cigarettes forever. "If you've tried everything and thought you could never quit," the spokeswoman on the TV spot says, "Zerosmoke is the answer." The magnets supposedly work by releasing "the same feel-good endorphins that smoking does."

The Zerosmoke website claims an 80% success rate -- which, if true, would make it far more effective than nicotine gum and patches or prescription medications. It also claims that more than 2 million smokers have tried the product.

Zerosmoke North America Inc., didn't respond to requests for an interview.

The bottom line: Any claim of an 80% success rate for quitting smoking is immediately suspicious, says Dr. Michael Fiore, professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and the founder and director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention. No documented treatment comes close to such lofty numbers, he says.

In fact, there's zero evidence that Zerosmoke or any other acupressure device can even modestly improve a smoker's chances for quitting, Fiore says. "I feel a moral obligation to steer smokers toward treatments that are based on evidence," he says. "And acupressure doesn't meet that standard."

A 2007 study of 19 smokers in England doesn't inspire confidence. In addition to nicotine-replacement therapy and group counseling, 12 randomly selected patients received one or two acupressure beads to place on their ears. (Unlike Zerosmoke magnets, the beads stuck to the ear with an adhesive backing.) Seven others had no beads. Subjects in the acupressure group were told to press on the beads several times throughout the day.

During follow-up visits one and two weeks after quitting, the acupressure groups reported just as many withdrawal symptoms as the group that didn't have the beads. No more follow-ups were possible, because just about all of the patients dropped out before the study was over. "We detected an initial enthusiasm for trying acupressure at the time of quitting but a marked lack of enthusiasm for the intervention at the end of the study," the researchers wrote.

Dozens of studies have investigated acupuncture, a close cousin to acupressure, as an aid for quitting smoking. Two major reviews of existing science -- including one by the U.S. Public Health Service -- reached the same conclusion: There's no evidence acupuncture helps smokers quit either.

The claim that Zerosmoke works by releasing endorphins does not make biological sense, Fiore says. As he explains, the brain chemical dopamine is what drives smoking addiction. A shortfall of dopamine, not endorphins, makes withdrawal so miserable.

Existing treatments are "far from perfect," says Jed Rose, co-inventor of the nicotine patch and director of the Center for Nicotine and Smoking Cessation Research at Duke University Medical Center. "People are looking for a magic cure."

If they've tried Zerosmoke, they're likely still looking.

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Curious about a health consumer product? Want the Healthy Skeptic to examine it? E-mail health@latimes.com.

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