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Researchers in Finland tracked data on almost 21,000 current and former smokers. The investigators wanted to see how changes in the walking distance from home to the nearest tobacco shop affected smoking behavior.
The result: For every added one-third of a mile the smoker had to walk, there was a 20 to 60 percent increase in his or her odds of quitting the habit, the study found.
Increasing the distance needed to buy cigarettes had no impact on whether a former smoker would resume the habit, however. And the study couldn't prove cause-and-effect, it could only point to an association.
The research was led by Anna Pulakka of the University of Turku, and published online Aug. 15 in JAMA Internal Medicine.
One expert at helping people quit smoking said the finding might be put to good use.
"Creating policies to relocate tobacco outlets -- rendering them less convenient and further away from residential areas -- may be an important new strategy to encourage quitting," said Patricia Folan. She directs the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y.
In an accompanying journal editorial, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole and Dr. Thomas Farley, of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, wrote that the findings strengthen "the research base linking the retail promotion of tobacco and smoking rates." They added that "it is time to recognize the risks that tobacco retail outlets pose to communities."
But Dr. Len Horovitz, another specialist in lung health, said the study "raises more questions than it answers."
"Would having to drive farther have the same result? If smokers start to exercise, would they be less willing to quit because they can more easily walk the distance?" said Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
-- Robert Preidt
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