New CDC ad campaign aims to shock smokers into quitting

March 16, 2012, 8:06 a.m.

Los Angeles County as a whole has a lower adult smoking rate than the nation's 19.3 percent – 14.3 percent – but South Los Angeles' percentages are closer to the national average. (Credit: Raul Lieberwirth/Flickr Creative Commons)

After nearly 50 years of government warnings about the dangers of smoking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is putting its money where its mouth is and launching a $54-million advertising campaign aimed at shocking smokers into quitting.

The campaign was announced Thursday and will officially roll out on Monday, March 19 and last for 12 weeks with TV, radio, billboard, magazine, newspaper, online and even theater placements. Titled "Tips from Former Smokers," it will feature real people – that is, non-actors – who have experienced various illnesses stemming from their tobacco use, including cancer, cardiovascular problems and asthma.

The campaign is a graphic one and doesn't shy away from shock value: One of the ads features a man who had his larynx removed as a result of cancer of the esophagus. Another features a man missing both legs, which had to amputated as a result of Buerger's disease, a condition that cuts off blood flow to the limbs and is linked to smoking. Another shows a man shaving around a hole in this throat, the result of a tracheotomy after being diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

In addition to the stark testimonies, the ads will also encourage viewers to quit (or not start at all) and provide information on how they can do so.

"This is incredibly important," Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's not every day we release something that will save thousands of lives."

It's not every day the CDC releases a huge ad campaign, period. This is the agency's first national advertising effort, which it plans to augment with social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The timing is right, said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who said the U.S. shouldn't just focus on the progress it's made.

"When we look back on just a few decades to the days of smoking in airplanes and elevators, it can be easy to focus on how far we've come," she said at a press conference on Thursday. "It can be easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency and start to think of tobacco use as a problem that will go away on its own."

But the adult smoking rate in the U.S. hasn't really been decreasing. Sebelius said that tobacco continues to kill 443,000 Americans every year, and that for every person who dies smoking, two new (young) smokers take their place. She added that approximately 4,000 people under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette every day – a statistic that's reflective of the more than $10 billion the tobacco industry spends on advertising.

The CDC estimates that 19.3 percent of adults in the United States smoke.

That's higher than L.A. County's percentage. In 2010 the L.A. County Department of Public Health released a report in which the department's director, Jonathan Fielding, said smoking kills 8,500 hundred people in the county each year – meaning one in seven deaths in the county can be attributed to smoking. In total, 14.3 percent of adults in the county – over 1 million people – are smokers, which is much lower than most metropolitan areas in the U.S., Fielding claimed.

The numbers for Council District 9, however, were far less rosy. While areas like Compton had a 15.9 percent rate of adults smokers, and areas like Florence-Graham had a rate of 14.9 percent, the 18.7 percent Ninth District of the people living in Council District 9 were smokers in 2010 – nearly 31,000 people. The report found that the South Los Angeles region as a whole has a high concentration of smokers.

The CDC reports that, at any given time, nearly 70 percent of smokers claim they plan to quit, and 50 percent make a serious attempt that lasts at least a day every year.

Photo by Raul Lieberwirth via Flickr Creative Commons.

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