WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) unveiled an ad campaign Thursday featuring stark — and often gruesome images — of former smokers talking about what life is like with a smoking-related disease.
At a press briefing, the agency showed some of the ads, including one in which a former smoker showed her amputation scars and another demonstrated a “hands-free” device that has enabled her to speak after her larynx was removed. A third former smoker demonstrated prosthetic limbs, explaining that smoking resulted in amputations.
“This campaign will feature some of the most attention-grabbing stories about smoking’s most devastating effects, and we expect it will lead to more than half a million smokers seeking out the resources they need to quit,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said during the briefing. “Tobacco continues to kill 443,000 Americans every year. And for every person who dies from smoking, at least two new young smokers take their place.”
Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD, said the ads were personal to her because her mother died of lung cancer caused by smoking, and an uncle also died from a smoking-related illness.
“Our nation has reduced tobacco use by half since the first surgeon general’s report [on smoking came out] in 1964,” she said at the briefing. “But since 2003 our progress has stalled. One in five adults in the U.S. continues to smoke.”
But there is good news, she added. “As a nation we know what works …. So today we’re going to educate the public with an aggressive media campaign.”
CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, said that when he was running the New York City public health department eight years ago, he was skeptical that an ad campaign like this one could do any good. “So we decided to do a test. We ran hard-hitting ads for a year and systematically monitored their impact.
“The impact was dramatic …. Wherever we showed the ads the most, people stopped smoking in the greatest numbers. It was a dose/response relationship.”
He added that the tobacco industry has spent more on marketing and promotion “on Jan. 1 and 2 of this year than we in the CDC will spend this year on this entire campaign. This is going up against great odds. But I am very confident that we will prevail … because the truth will prevail.”
The ads not only will pay for themselves through the reduction in medical costs from smoking-related illnesses that will be achieved in a few years, “but even more important, [they] will help 50,000 smokers to quit, we project, and save thousands of lives.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) lauded the new campaign. “[It] could not come at a better time,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. “The painfully real accounts of former smokers featured in these ads will focus public attention on the devastating health effects of tobacco use, encourage current smokers to quit, and help strongly combat the tobacco industry’s efforts to foster a new generation of addicts.”
About one-third of smoking-related deaths in the U.S. are linked to cardiovascular disease, she noted. “The stories of two Americans included in this campaign, who suffered from a heart attack and a stroke as a result of smoking, are harrowing examples of how tobacco can ruin an individual’s health. The ads highlight a shocking but very realistic fate that could await some current smokers if they continue their tobacco addiction.”
The ads, which focus on smoking-related lung and throat cancer, heart attack, stroke, Buerger’s disease, and asthma, will begin to air March 19 and run for at least 12 weeks on various media nationwide, including television, radio, and online. They also will include the phone number 1-800-QUIT-NOW — a toll-free help line for smokers trying to quit — and will feature the www.smokefree.gov website, which provides free quitting information.