OSAKA - Smokers make up an ever-shrinking portion of society, but many of them try to quit in vain or don't have the resources to break the habit.
An Internet forum created by a university professor aims to help these people fight the urge for a smoke and stop smoking altogether as an ultimate goal.
Users of the Quit Smoking Marathon forum can pick up pointers on how to quit smoking from people who have already achieved the goal while encouraging other people like themselves.
"I'm pathetic. I failed," one of the users wrote in an e-mail she sent to the forum.
The woman ended up smoking again just two hours after she stopped.
She quickly received several e-mails in response, saying "Don't forget the reason you're quitting smoking," and "Nicotine patches can help you. Also, breathe deeply when you feel tired."
"I won't give up. I'll start over again," the woman wrote back.
The PC programme starts in February and July each year.
When users send e-mails on their current status or problems, they receive advice, and the exchanges are shared with members on the same mailing list.
Cell phone users can join in the cell phone programme any time. They communicate with other users on a bulletin board.
Both PC and cell phone users are required to donate 10,000 yen (S$155) to the forum when they register and can use it as long as they want.
Machiko Sumioka, a company employee from Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, joined the forum about two years ago. She said she has managed to remain smoke-free thanks to the support.
"I've been able to hang on because I don't want to betray people who have supported me," said Sumioka, 60. "The forum helped me realise in what situations I'd want to smoke, and I could prepare for it."
The forum was launched by Prof. Yuko Takahashi at Nara Women's University in 1997.
At the time, Takahashi ran an out-patient smoking cessation clinic at a hospital in Nara Prefecture.
At first, she ran the forum alone.
She wanted to hold it only once as she felt pressure and had too many responsibilities.
However, people who succeeded in quitting smoking thanks to her forum offered to help keep it going.
Now, the forum is supported by about 200 volunteers, including people who have quit smoking and undergone training for the forum and doctors.
Many people go to medical institutions to quit smoking.
Those who meet certain requirements, such as the number of cigarettes they smoke a day, are covered by health insurance to take part in a 12-week programme.
They can take the treatment, using such aids as medicine, nicotine patches and chewing gum, a maximum of five times.
For about nine months after the session is completed, they cannot be covered by the insurance for similar treatment.
According to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey, about 30 per cent of people remain smoke-free one year after starting treatment.
"You're tempted to smoke now and then. If you want to quit smoking, continuous support of people around you is the key to success," Takahashi said. "While making an effort to quit, users of the Quit Smoking Marathon can receive advice from former smokers who understand their hardship after having overcome the same problem."