A new anti-smoking campaign features a parade of former smokers who want to save others from their humiliating health consequences — from Marlene, who’s losing her vision, to Julia, who must submit to a colostomy bag.
This year’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention campaign looks at two conditions newly linked to smoking: the blinding eye disease called macular degeneration, and colon cancer.
The CDC says its “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign in 2012 encouraged 100,000 people to kick the habit. The advertising campaign features graphic images and pull-no-punches interviews with victims of smoking, including Terrie Hall, who died of throat cancer in 2013 at the age of 53.
This year, Marlene, who isn’t fully identified, tells about having to endure regular treatments for macular degeneration. “Please don't end up like me. Don't sit in a doctor's chair, have a clamp put on your eye, and have needles stuck in your eyeballs. It’s horrible,” Marlene, who is 68, told NBC News.
"Don't sit in a doctor's chair, have a clamp put on your eye, and have needles stuck in your eyeballs."
“I get two eye injections every month,” Marlene says in a CDC video. “I want to see the sun. I want to see the water,” she adds. “I’m so sorry that I started smoking,” she says, crying.
Like most smokers, Marlene started as a teenager. “I was 15 and my mom was a smoker. I took a cigarette and I started puffing on it,” she said. “I thought I was cool.”
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States, according to the CDC. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease and other ills caused by smoking kill more than 480,000 Americans each year.
Smoking is at its lowest point yet, with just under 18 percent of Americans admitting to being smokers.
The CDC wants to drive that down even more and says it has shown that sustained campaigns featuring regretful smokers can help. “Over a million and a half smokers made a quit attempt because of our 12 week campaign — just a 12-week campaign created this effect,” Dr. Tim McAfee, director of CDC's Office on Smoking and Health, told NBC News.
"Over a hundred thousand people quit successfully and permanently because of the campaign.”
Smokers told CDC they find the stories provide much needed motivation. Studies show it’s hard to quit, with the average smoker trying 11 times before succeeding.
“So in 2015, we are building on what we discovered last year with the release of the 2014 50th anniversary Surgeon General's report. And amazingly — 50 years later, we are still discovering conditions that smoking contributes to,” McAfee said.
“One is age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 65, and we now know that smoking is a cause of age-related macular degeneration and of colorectal cancer, which is one of the top causes of cancer death in our country.”
“When you have a hole in your neck…be very careful shaving."
Marlene says she doesn’t benefit from making the videos. “I'm not doing this for myself. I'm doing it for the country, to save people. I'm pleading with everybody,” she said.
Julia, a 58-year-old Mississippi native, advises on how to use a colostomy bag in one video. “I smoked and I got colon cancer,” she says. “What I hated the most was the colostomy bag. That’s where they re-route your intestines, so you have bowel movements that go into a bag.”
One tip: Get a sense of humor. "You'll need it," she says.
“When you have a hole in your neck…be very careful shaving,” advises Shawn, 50, of Washington state, a smoker who got throat cancer.
CDC sends smokers to 1-800-quit-now or www.cdc.gov/tips for help.
“We agree that cigarette smoking is addictive and causes serious disease,” Brian May at tobacco giant Altria told NBC. “The best thing to do is quit.”