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Why these anti-smoking TV ads are working

January 21, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
Five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control launched the first federal education campaign against smoking. Today the government says it has helped 400,000 smokers quit for good. In a series of TV ads called "Tips From Former Smokers," Americans have shared personal stories of the consequences of smoking. Jeffrey Brown examines the campaign with CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: getting smokers to quit and the impact of a government campaign against tobacco.

Five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the first federal education campaign against smoking. That includes an ad campaign called “Tips From Former Smokers.” Five years later, the government says it has helped 400,000 smokers quit for good, and led millions of others to try quitting.

Jeffrey Brown spoke with CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden about it and tobacco as a public health problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Frieden, welcome once again.

“Tips From Former Smokers,” now, why do you think this approach and this kind of ad is the right way to go?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, Director, CDC: Most Americans who have ever smoked have already quit. Most people who still smoke want to quit.

Hard-hitting ads like these help them quit. And over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of Americans have stopped smoking because these courageous people have been willing to share their stories of pain and suffering, so other people don’t have to go through the same problem that they’re going through.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I want to show one, so our audience can get a flavor for what you’re talking about.

This is a woman from Tennessee. Let’s take a look at that.

KRISTY, Former Smoker: I’m Kristy. As a truck driver, I had a lot of time to smoke. I also had severe shortness of breath and a smoker’s cough.

I knew I had to quit. So, for six months, I used e-cigarettes. Then I stopped. But the whole time, I kept smoking regular cigarettes, right up until my lung collapsed. My tip is, just cutting down on cigarettes isn’t enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Frieden, what’s the argument here, that these ads work better than anything else or in conjunction with other things? How much of a factor are you suggesting they are?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: These ads are important.

A comprehensive tobacco control program drives smoking rates down the most and protects kids the best. That includes high prices for tobacco through tax or minimum price. That includes making public places smoke-free, so people don’t get exposed to secondhand smoke. That includes helping smokers quit, because medications can double or triple your odds of succeeding if you try to quit, and hard-hitting ads like this.

And hard-hitting ads like this work. We have proven time and again. And they work and at an amazing cost-effectiveness.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain that, though, if I could interrupt you.

How do you measure success? Because you know there has been a lot of debate about the effectiveness of this kind of advertising.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: And this kind of advertising is actually very well proven to work. There is no scientific doubt about it.

We have different ways of surveying people, of monitoring behavior. We track the calls to quit lines. Every time these ads are on the air, quit line calls skyrocket. And then we have analyzed people who call the quit line and try to quit, people who don’t call the quit line and try to quit when these ads are on and when these ads are off.

And we have shown really definitively in the prior year campaigns that the impact is quite large and life-saving. In fact, for every $400 we spend on these ads, we prevent — we prolong someone’s life by at least a year. And for every $3,000 we spend on these ads, we save somebody’s life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so the evidence is that it lasts long-term? Surely, some of these people would call the quit line, try to give up, and then not succeed and go back to smoking.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: A lot of people don’t succeed the first time, so we have looked at long-term quitting.

And if you stay off cigarettes for six or 12 months, the likelihood is, you’re going to stay off for life and for a much healthier life as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: The woman in that ad mentioned e-cigarettes. And that, for you, is part of this as well, right, as more people turn to that. You are also trying to say that is not a solution?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Well, on e-cigarettes, first off, for kids, no form of tobacco is safe. They shouldn’t be using e-cigarettes or any form of tobacco.

For adults who try to quit, it will only really make a difference in your health and make you avoid the problems of — allow you to avoid the problems of smoking if you quit completely. The key is to quit completely.

If e-cigarettes allow you to quit completely, great for you. But for most people who are using e-cigarettes, they’re still smoking, and that’s a problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, when you put this in the big picture, the general trends for smoking in the U.S. still heading in the right direction?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: We have made progress, but, still, more than 40 million Americans smoke.

And every year, 480,000 Americans are killed by tobacco. And for everyone who dies, another 30 live with disabling, disfiguring conditions from tobacco. It remains the leading preventable cause in this country, and we can do more to reduce smoking rates and protect our kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Thomas Frieden of the CDC, thanks so much.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Thank you very much.

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