Medicare could help seniors that want to stop smoking by providing nicotine patches and a telephone hotline, according to new research published in Health Services Research. Nearly 20% of seniors who utilized these means quit smoking for 1 year.

“The question for Medicare is this: Is it cost-effective to help seniors quit smoking?” says lead author Geoffrey Joyce, senior economist with RAND, which provides research services to the government. The new research was conducted to answer this question.

The study examined 7,354 seniors who enrolled in smoking cessation programs between 2002 and 2003. All participants received a self-help kit and were then broken into four different groups. The first group received a smoking cessation brochure, the second group received reimbursement for four counseling sessions. The third group received counseling and a nicotine patch or the smoking-cessation drug bupropion. A nicotine patch and access to a telephone smoking-cessation hotline were given to the fourth group.

The fourth group proved to be the most successful at stopping smoking, with 19% of participants quitting for 1 year. The other three groups experience 10%, 14%, and 16% success rates, respectively. The difference between the 10% quit rate and the 19% quit rate is shows that quit rates can double with a free patch and a telephone hotline.

According to a 1986 study, even seniors who have smoked for decades could benefit from quitting. Findings show that a senior who smokes 20 or more cigarettes a day and quits at age 65 could expect to add two to three years to his or her life.

“What we don’t know is how much money this really saves if saving money is your goal,” says Joyce. “If you just look at it from a strict budget perspective, it’s not going to save Medicare a lot one way or another.”