Well: Using Former Smokers to Spur Others to Quit
In the last year, Terrie Hall, a former smoker from North Carolina, has become something of a national celebrity.
A year ago she was featured in a series of nationwide advertisements that showed the grim consequences of smoking. In one widely seen television ad, Ms. Hall, who is 52 and has head and neck cancer, takes viewers through her morning routine: inserting a set of false teeth and fitting a small speaker inside a hole in her neck.
Since the graphic ads began airing, Ms. Hall has been stopped regularly on the street.
“Strangers come up to me and tell me they quit smoking because they saw my ad,” she said. “One woman in South Carolina broke down in tears and gave me a hug in the middle of a Walgreens.
“I hugged her hard,” she added. “It’s a good feeling to know that you’ve helped somebody.”
The commercials last year marked the first time that the federal government directly attacked the tobacco industry in paid, national advertisements. The campaign, called “Tips From Former Smokers,” lasted just 12 weeks. But federal health officials say it was so successful that they are launching a second round, featuring new ads, starting on Monday.
This time the ads will include nonsmokers debilitated by secondhand smoke, as well as vulnerable groups like diabetics and American Indians. About a third of all American Indians and Alaska Natives smoke, the highest of any ethnic group in this country.
Though it is hard to determine the precise impact of last year’s campaign, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report providing a measure of the campaign’s influence.
During the 12 weeks that the ads ran in 2012, the national quit-line featured in every ad – 1-800-QUIT-NOW – received about 365,000 calls, more than twice the number of calls in the same period the previous year.
At the same time, there were nearly 630,000 unique visits to a smoking cessation site featured in the ads, smokefree.gov. That is roughly five times the number of visits during the same period in 2011.
“When the ads stopped, the numbers went right back down to baseline,” Dr. Tom Frieden, the C.D.C.’s director, said in an interview. “These are real life stories, and telling them saves lives and saves money. That’s the bottom line.”
According to the C.D.C., about one out of five smokers who calls a quit-line gives up cigarettes for good, four times the number who try to stop smoking without calling one of the lines.
The ads last year cost $54 million, a sum that is dwarfed by the roughly $1 million an hour that the tobacco industry spends on the marketing and promotion of cigarettes. Dr. Frieden said the ads were worth it, averaging out to “less than $1,000 per quitter.”
“Things that pull back the curtain and show what we as doctors see day in and day out with disability and disfigurement motivate smokers to quit much more than saying ‘You’re going to die,’” he said. “That doesn’t motivate people to quit.”
This year the ads will cost slightly less than they did last year, $48 million, and be paid for by the Affordable Care Act. The C.D.C. estimates that about 85 percent of smokers will see them at least once a week through June. The primary audience for the new ads is broad: people between the ages of 18 and 54. But several target specific groups.
One of the new television commercials shows a diabetic smoker who developed kidney failure, blindness in one eye, and had one of his legs amputated. Smoking greatly increases the likelihood of diabetes complications. Yet that doesn’t seem to stop many people with diabetes from lighting up: the smoking rate among diabetics is the same as the rate in the general population, said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the C.D.C.’s office on smoking and health.
“That’s mostly because that word hasn’t gotten out,” he said.
Several of the ads feature people who suffered lung damage from secondhand smoke even though they never picked up a cigarette, including a 7-year-old boy with asthma and a man who worked in a casino. Another ad shows an Alaska Native and member of the Tlingit tribe, Michael, 57, whose smoking habit left him in need of a lung transplant.
“I have a tip for you,” he says in one commercial. “If your doctor gives you five years to live, spend it talking with your grandchildren. Explain to them that your grandpa is not going to be around anymore to share his wisdom and his love. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, and I’m running out of time.”