A little electronic nagging might get many smokers worried enough about their health to attempt quitting, research suggests.

Researchers found that sending smokers anti-tobacco messages via their handheld computer or PDA (personal digital assistant) for two weeks spurred more than half to attempt quitting. The key, the study found, seemed to be getting the smokers to worry over the health consequences of the habit.

The findings suggest that health concerns — more than worry over the social consequences of smoking or aesthetics like wrinkles and yellowed teeth — are a prime motivator for smokers to quit, the researchers report in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

"We focused on motivation because it is the first step in the whole quit process," explained lead researcher Dr. Renee E. Magnan, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

"Without motivation," she told Reuters Health, "a smoker is not going to try to quit or be successful at it."

For the study, Magnan and her colleagues recruited 119 smokers whose average age was 26 years. The researchers did not ask the participants to try to quit, but supplied all with a PDA through which they received multiple messages everyday for two weeks.

One group received messages about "daily hassles" like money problems and general stress. The other received messages about the consequences of smoking — statements such as "93 percent of lung cancer patients die within 5 years" and "smokers die on average 13 to 14 years earlier than had they not been smokers."

Some statements also addressed cosmetic concerns, like premature aging, bad breath and stained teeth, while others highlighted the dangers of secondhand smoke to non-smokers.

But it was the statements related to personal health risks that created the most worry, and that, in turn, pushed some study participants to try quitting.

By the end of the two weeks, more than half of the group getting anti-smoking messages (53 percent) said they had started efforts to quit compared with just 19 percent of the comparison group.

Future studies should look at whether worry-inducing messages — sent via electronic device or otherwise — do lead to higher quit rates, according to Magnan.

One question is what the right dose of worry is.

"You want to make smokers worry about their smoking to get them motivated to try to quit," Magnan said, "but you don't want them to worry so much that they become anxious or completely ignore the problem altogether."