Scary Tobacco Ads Work

If you’ve seen the TV ads, you probably responded with a mixture of horror and compassion. A woman is going through her morning routine of inserting false teeth, donning a wig, putting a speaker into a hole in her throat that she covers with a scarf. She’s a smoker whose addiction left her with the devastating health consequences of oral and throat cancer-her larynx had to be removed.

Terrie Hall is a real-life victim of tobacco featured in a series of federally funded anti-smoking ads. Her brave public, if disfigured, face helped others to quit, according to the medical journal The Lancet.

Last week, the New York Times wrote about a woman who had smoked for nearly 20 years, wanted to quit to rid herself of throat and sinus problems, but didn’t … until she saw the Terrie Hall ad.

“It scared me because I had always had problems with my throat,” Lisha Hancock told The Times. “When I saw that, it made me realize that there are other types of cancer besides lung cancer, and that really hit home for me.”

Hall’s spot was part of the campaign “Tips From Former Smokers” that was the first time the government directly attacked the tobacco industry in paid, nationwide advertisements. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1.6 million smokers attempted to quit smoking because of the CDC’s national ad campaign, and more than 200,000 Americans quit immediately following the three-month campaign last year. The Lancet study estimates that the campaign might have inspired more than 100,000 Americans to give up smoking.

The results exceed the campaign’s original goals of 500,000 quit attempts and 50,000 that were successful. According to The Times, about half of the nation’s 45 million smokers try to quit every year, and about 5% are successful.

The study surveyed 5,300 Americans before and after the campaign, including 3,000 smokers. The ads ran for three months, and the researchers found that 4 in 5 smokers had seen the commercials, and the percentage who reported trying to quit rose by 12%. Of those who tried to quit, about 13% remained smoke-free after the campaign had ended.

The CDC said the Tips campaign is key to countering the more than $8 billion the tobacco industry spends annually to woo people into smoking cigarettes. (See our blog, “Smoking Still Kills and Tobacco Companies Still Fight the Truth.”)

Previous appeals for smokers to quit focused on how cigarettes shorten your life; the new campaign focused not on death but on the quality of life by depicting real-life smokers whose habit had left them with amputations, paralysis and disfigurement from heart and lung surgeries.

“I think the fact that you may die is not highly motivating to people,” Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, told The Times. “The fact that the remainder of your life may be very unpleasant is, and that’s what the data shows. Not only do smokers die about 10 years younger than most people, but they feel about 10 years older than their age.”

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) funded the $54 million campaign as well as another series of ads that ran earlier this year for about $48 million. The CDC plans to run the ads next year as well.

January marks the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health, which concluded that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S., the CDC says, killing more than 1,200 Americans every day. More than 8 million Americans live with a smoking-related disease, and every day more than 1,000 people younger than 18 become daily smokers. Smoking-related diseases cost Americans $96 billion a year in direct health care expenses, and $97 billion in lost productivity each year.

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