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

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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.