The CDC’s Graphic Anti-Smoking Campaign Helped Inspire 1.6 Million Americans To Try Quitting

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cdc anti-smoking 4

CREDIT: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control launched an anti-tobacco ad campaign that depicted the graphic effects of living with diseases and injuries that can result from smoking. Since then, federal researchers say 1.6 million people have made an attempt to quit smoking, and 100,000 will likely successfully kick the habit for good.

The CDC’s “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign — a $54 million effort that was largely funded by Obamacare — included television, radio, and print ads that ran between March and June of last year. The campaign intended to illustrate the “painful reality” of tobacco-related consequences by featuring people who have suffered serious illnesses after years of smoking cigarettes. One TV spot portrayed a 51-year-old named Terrie who now has a hole in her neck after getting throat and oral cancer and having her larynx removed. Another featured 40-year-old Bill, whose legs were amputated after smoking took a toll on his poor circulation.

Federal health officials estimated that the campaign was able to reach about one in every four smokers. Dr. Tim McAfee, the director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health and the lead author of the new study that estimates the campaign’s impact, said that type of reach is largely unprecedented.

“This is probably the biggest campaign that has been done in the world,” McAfee told Reuters, noting that 40 million Americans smokers saw at least one advertisement from “Tips from Former Smokers” during its three-month run.

Researchers attempted to measure the campaign’s impact by surveying thousands of smokers and non-smokers before and after the ads ran. At the beginning of the campaign, about 31 percent of respondents said they had attempted to quit smoking within the past three months. By the end of it, that inched up to 35 percent. Researchers found a similar small increase among the nonsmoking people who had recently talked to their friends or family about the dangers of smoking — it moved from 32 percent to 35 percent by the end of the campaign. While that can’t necessarily be directly attributed to the CDC’s ads, researchers did examine other mass-marketed anti-smoking campaigns during the same time period to help them better estimate the impact of the “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign.

The CDC, which warns that smoking is the top causes of preventable deaths in the country and a significant drain on national health expenditures, plans on replicating the campaign again next year. “We would be delusional if we thought we could permanently change the rate people quit with one three-month campaign,” McAffee noted. “You have to keep doing these things.”

Other federal agencies have had more difficulty with graphic anti-tobacco campaigns. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wanted to put labels illustrating tobacco’s negative health effects on cigarette packaging — but several courts ruled that the graphics went beyond factual information to cross the line into anti-smoking advocacy, therefore violating the tobacco industry’s First Amendment protections. The FDA was forced to ditch what would have been the most dramatic update to cigarette labels in the past 25 years.