Researchers found subjects in one of the first real-time, fully automated, Twitter-based smoking intervention programmes Tweet2Quit - were twice as successful at kicking the habit than those using traditional methods.

The study found Tweet2Quit participants reported 40 percent sustained abstinence compared to 20 percent for control participants after 60 days.

"Our current results indicate significant possibilities for using social media as a delivery mechanism for health prevention intervention, specifically in smoking cessation," said Cornelia Pechmann, from University of California.

"Because of the low cost and high scalability of social media, Tweet2Quit has tremendous potential to deliver low-cost tobacco treatments on a global scale," Pechmann said.

Tweet2Quit uses a hybrid approach combining automated messages delivered to small, private, virtual self-help groups of smokers who are motivated to quit via the social media platform of Twitter.

The messages are based on clinical guidelines for smoking cessation and employ positive, open-ended questions that encourage online discussion, such as "what will you do when you feel the urge to smoke?"

On average, about 23 percent of tweets were in response to these automated texts, while 77 percent were spontaneous, researchers said.

"The online virtual support groups provide us with novel insights into the process by which smokers are committing to quitting and supporting each other in these efforts," said Judith J Prochaska from Stanford University.

The findings were published in the journal Tobacco Control.