A randomized study of cellphone technology to reinforce alcohol abstinence in the natural environment


Correspondence to: Sheila M. Alessi, Calhoun Cardiology Center, Behavioral Health, University of Connecticut Health Center, 263 Farmington Avenue, Farmington, CT 06030, USA. E-mail: salessi@uchc.edu



Contingency management (CM) uses tangible incentives to systematically reinforce abstinence and is among the most efficacious psychosocial substance abuse treatments. This study assessed the feasibility and initial efficacy of a portable CM procedure designed to address technical limitations for detecting drinking that have prevented using CM for alcohol problems.


Participants received a cellphone, breathalyzer and training on video-recording alcohol breath tests (BrACs) and texting results. For 4 weeks, staff texted participants one to three times daily indicating that a breath alcohol concentration test (BrAC) was due within the hour. Participants were randomized to (1) modest compensation for submitting dated time-stamped BrAC videos regardless of results or (2) the same plus CM with escalating vouchers for on-time alcohol-negative tests (n-BrAC; <02 g/dl). ‘Thank-you’ texts were sent, with CM patients also informed of results-based earnings.


Participants' natural environment.


Adults (n = 30; ≥ 21 years) who drank frequently but were not physiologically dependent.


Drinking and related problems were assessed at intake and week 4. BrACs and self-reports of drinking were collected throughout. The primary outcome was the percentage of n-BrACs. Other outcomes were the longest duration of consecutive n-BrACs (longest duration of abstinence) and self-reports of drinking.


On average, 88.6% (10.4%) of BrACs were submitted on time, without group differences (P = 0.18). The percentage of n-BrACs and LDA were greater with CM, and there was an interaction effect on drinking frequency and negative consequences, with decreases over time with CM (P = 0.00; effect sizes d = 0.52–0.62).


Cellphone technology may be useful for extending contingency management to treatment for alcohol problems.