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Will These Graphic New Ads Get Smokers to Quit?

With a $54 Million Campaign, the CDC Hopes So

By Published on .

For years now, the national smoking rate for adults has been stalled at just under 20%. To get that number moving down again, the federal government is making a renewed push, starting with a new $54 million campaign from the Centers for Disease Control designed to broadcast the grisly health effects caused by tobacco products.

The campaign is called "Tips From Former Smokers," but don't let the rather plain name fool you. The ads are straight-up horrifying, with amputations, stomata, and other cigarette-caused bodily destruction showcased by the people who have suffered. And it's not all cancer either. Also depicted is the lesser-known Buerger's disease, which causes circulatory problems and gangrene. To New Yorkers, the approach will look familiar. A few years back, the city health department ran a high-profile campaign that took a very similar approach. (The CDC campaign even features one of the stars of the New York campaign: 61-year-old Marie, who lost her fingertips and lower legs to Buerger's disease.)

Perhaps the most dramatic CDC ad depicts the morning routine of a 51-year-old woman named Terrie. The throat cancer survivor's rituals include putting in her teeth, donning a wig, and installing an electrolarynx that gives her a harsh, synthetic voice she uses to utter: "Now you're ready for the day."

Another ad features ex-smokers with laryngeal implants offering tips: "Don't use spray paint." "Crouch, don't bend over. You don't want to lose the food in your stomach." "Don't face the showerhead."

The viewer isn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

Do these kinds of shock ads work?

CDC Director Tom Frieden believes so, based on his experience in New York. He approved that campaign, which sought to shock people out of the habit. Mr. Frieden, however, admitted that at first he was skeptical this kind of ad worked. So they tested the ads for a year, monitoring the impact.

"Wherever we showed the ads the most, people stopped smoking in the greatest numbers. It was a dose-response relationship."

New York's campaign wasn't the only instance where research has turned up a strong correlation between anti-tobacco ads and quitting. Earlier this year, Ad Age took an extensive look at the effectiveness of these sorts of ads and found that , for the most part, they work.

Despite that success, anti-smoking ad budgets -- and tobacco-control programs more generally -- have been scaled back in recent years, thanks to the fiscal pressure on state legislatures.

Mr. Frieden addressed this issue at the press conference, saying that , "The national campaign does not replace state and local efforts; it supplements them."

The press conference featured a few defenses of the campaign's costs. Mr. Frieden claimed the cost of the three-month campaign is equal to two days of what tobacco companies spend on marketing. And health officials frequently claim that spending on anti-tobacco measures yields savings from declining Medicaid costs.

"Tobacco control is a best buy," said Mr. Frieden.

Indeed, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who spoke before Mr. Frieden, said this campaign alone is expected to save well over $100 million.

The paid portion of the CDC campaign will run for 12 weeks, with the PSAs going on beyond that , and it will hit just about every medium, from TV and print to digital and outdoor. The ads were created by Arnold , Boston, one of the main agencies on Legacy's Truth campaign, the most recent national anti-smoking ad effort. Legacy's funding in recent years has run dry.

The FDA is also expected to launch a major campaign later this year and it's currently in the process of selecting an agency. Public documents about the campaign suggest that campaign will take a lighter tone.

That shouldn't be too hard.

Here's Marie (and Brandon):

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