First National Anti-Smoking TV Ads Help 200,000 Smokers to Quit

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Real-life stories of former smokers’ health problems provided the motivation smokers needed.

That’s the conclusion of a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which funded its first nation-wide ad campaign to lower smoking rates in the U.S. In 2012, with $54 million provided by the Affordable Care Act to reduce health care costs associated with tobacco, the agency created and aired a series of television ads featuring former smokers with often- debilitating health problems. In one, a woman holds up her hands, which only contain the stumps of fingers that had to be amputated due to poor circulation triggered by her smoking habit. In another, a woman lying on her bed describes how she needs help to bathe, go to the bathroom and dress herself after suffering a smoking-related stroke.

The compelling ads began airing in March 2012, and researchers at the CDC led by Dr. Timothy McAfee, director of the Office on Smoking and Health, collected data from more than 3000 smokers and 2200 non-smokers across the US to determine how effective the ads were after three months. During the campaign, the percentage of smokers who tried to quit increased by 12%, translating to 1.64 million people. At the end of the three months, about 200,000 of them remained smoke-free.

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“I have to do a lot of doom and gloom about smoking,” says McAfee. “But this is an opportunity to celebrate a success and I see the results as very good news.”

While smoking rates have been declining, that downward slope has leveled off in recent years. Encouraged by anti-smoking campaigns in some states, and even in other countries that adopted a more aggressive, hard-hitting approach to educating the public about the dangers of tobacco, the CDC decided to invest its anti-smoking dollars in the first nationwide campaign to discourage tobacco use.

After polling former smokers and non smokers McAfee says CDC officials knew that simply warning smokers about the dangers of tobacco wouldn’t be enough motivation to kick the habit. Neither would statistics and impersonal messages about the health risks associated with smoking. So the agency focused on telling the stories of former smokers, and hoped that their experiences and circumstances would resonate more with current smokers.

“What we wanted to do was focus on the humanity aspect,” says McAfee. “These are real people, and these things really happened to these real people.”

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According to the analysis, it worked. But while 200,000 smokers remained off cigarettes by the end of the three-month study period, McAfee and his colleagues recognize that relapse rates among smokers is high, and estimates that about half have probably gone back to lighting up.

Still, the findings suggest that the personal approach does work, and can have an effect on smoking rates, and CDC officials hope that the campaign becomes a lesson for other countries as well. “The bottom line is we now know it works,” says McAfee. Also included in the ads was a number for a quit line and encouragement for smokers that quitting would spare them the debilitating health problems depicted in the ads.