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Graphic anti-smoking ads helped 100,000 kick the habit for good, CDC says

Terrie, 52, diagnosed with oral and throat cancers at 40. Her story was one of many the CDC helped persuade 100,000 smokers to quit.
Terrie, 52, diagnosed with oral and throat cancers at 40. Her story was one of many the CDC helped persuade 100,000 smokers to quit.CDC

A graphic, deliberately shocking, anti-tobacco campaign starring former smokers -- including a woman who lost her voice box to throat cancer -- helped 100,00 Americans kick the habit permanently, government researchers say.

And an estimated 1.6 million people at least tried to quit smoking after seeing the first national mass ­media anti-smoking initiative to be funded by the U.S. government, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The series of ads, called "Tips," featured images of an 18-year-old wearing an oxygen mask in the hospital after suffering an asthma attack caused by secondhand smoke; a 57-year-old Army veteran with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who tearfully declares “I’m running out of time,”; and a heart attack victim showing a gruesome scar from his surgery.

One of the most striking ads featured Terrie Hall, a 52-year-old North Carolina woman who suffered throat cancer caused by smoking. “The only voice my grandson has ever heard is this one,” the well-groomed blonde woman croaks in one video.

“People would come up to her in the grocery store or drug store in other towns and ask ‘if you are the woman on the ad -- you inspired me to quit smoking - thank you so much’,” said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, who directed the study.

The 2012 three-month campaign reached nearly 80 percent of US smokers, the CDC team says in a report published Monday in the Lancet medical journal. 

“The Tips campaign seems to have resulted in millions of non-­smokers talking to smokers about quitting and getting help,” the CDC researchers wrote.

To figure this out, the CDC team sent questionnaires to 3,051 smokers and 2,220 non-smokers completed baseline and follow-up assessments. They found that 78 percent of the smokers and 74 percent of the non-smokers recalled having seen at least one Tips advertisement on television during the three-month campaign.

Before the campaign started, 31 percent of smokers said they had tried to quit for at least one day in the previous three months. This went up to nearly 35 percent after the campaign. And 13 percent said they succeeded.

The differences may look small percentage wise, but when multiplied over the whole U.S. population, they added up. Twenty percent of U.S. adults smoke.

“We found over a million and half smokers made quit attempts because of the campaign,” McAfee told NBC News. “This study shows that we save a year of life for less than $200. That makes it one of the most cost-effective prevention efforts,” McAfee added.

The CDC says half of all smokers try to quit every year, but only 5 percent succeed. Drugs, acupuncture, counseling and nicotine replacement therapies are all available to help, but nothing works perfectly. Over the weekend, researchers reported that e-cigarettes work about as well as nicotine patches to help people quit. 

“This is exciting news. Quitting can be hard and I congratulate and celebrate with former smokers - this is the most important step you can take to a longer, healthier life,” said Director Dr. Tom Frieden. “I encourage anyone who tried to quit to keep trying – it may take several attempts to succeed.’’

The CDC says its $54 million campaign, paid for out of the 2010 health reform law, counters the $8 billion the tobacco industry spends on advertising and promotions.

“Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, causing nearly 5 million deaths annually,” the CDC team wrote. “For individuals, smoking shortens life expectancy by more than 10 years, whereas adults who quit before age 45 years regain almost a decade in life expectancy.”

CDC says cigarettes kill 440,000 Americans a year, and tobacco use costs $96 billion in direct medical costs and $97 billion in lost productivity.

"The CDC’s campaign was highly successful despite lasting only three months and costing only $54 million – less than 0.7 percent of the $8.8 billion the tobacco industry spends annually to market its deadly and addictive products," said Susan Liss, Executive Director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

"To win the fight against tobacco, we need more media campaigns like this, both nationally and in the states. Fortunately, the CDC recognizes this and conducted a second round of its campaign earlier this year. Similar national campaigns must be continued and expanded in the future. "