New anti-smoking ad campaign features personal profiles of tobacco victims

March 14, 2012

The federal government is launching a new anti-tobacco campaign that features personal descriptions and photographs of people who’ve suffered grievous effects from smoking, often before the age of 50.

The ostensible purpose of the campaign, called “Tips from Former Smokers,” is to give smokers practical advice on how to quit their habit. Promotional materials released a day in advance of the formal launch, however, suggests it is also an up-close, voyeuristic look at victims of disease.

A picture of a 52-year-old blonde woman with throat cancer, “Sharon” from Illinois, shows her with her right hand over the tracheotomy hole in her neck. The text says: “Sharon started smoking at age 13. She has two daughters, ages 35 and 32. She enjoys bowling, playing pool, crocheting, cooking and visiting animal shelters.”

The youngest of the 14 people featured in the campaign is 31-year-old “Brandon” from North Dakota. He has Buerger’s disease, a rare ailment in which smoking causes extreme constriction of blood vessels leading to gangrene. He had both legs amputated below the knees. He also “has two kids, ages 16 and 4 months [and] likes salt-water aquariums, computers and video games.”

The $54-million, 12-week campaign will feature prime-time television spots in which people describe how their lives were changed by smoking. Three participants who aren’t ill will tell viewers what helped them stop.

“Graphic, hard-hitting ads like this work. They help smokers quit. There is very clear scientific evidence for that,” said Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is running the campaign.

TV networks ran prime-time anti-smoking “public service announcements” for free in 1968 and 1969, and they have sporadically carried spots in other time slots since then. Frieden said this is the first time the federal government has bought time for this purpose.

The government will pay regular advertising rates, but networks have agreed to provide $1 worth of free time for every $3 worth bought. In all, there will be eight TV spots (one in Spanish); seven radio spots, seven print ads, and five billboard and bus-shelter ads, as well as online and mobile-phone messages.

The campaign, to be launched at a news conference in Washington on Thursday, was praised by anti-tobacco groups.

“I think this strategy is going to help us get the ball moving again,” said Thomas Glynn, of the American Cancer Society. “We have been stuck with 20-percent prevalence of smoking in adults for the last six or seven years. This campaign is going to create a buzz.”

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said: “This campaign is long overdue. The evidence consistently shows that strong, edgy ads that evoke emotional reactions to concrete health effects have the greatest impact.”

The diseases suffered by the 14 people include lung cancer, head and neck cancer, Buerger’s disease, asthma, heart attack and stroke. The testimony includes a man who regrets not being able to play basketball with his son, and a person who needs help washing because of partial paralysis. The idea is to illustrate the immediate and permanent damage that smoking sometimes causes.

“I think all too often smokers think, ‘I’ll just die a few years early.’ And that’s true. But there’s often a lot of pain and disability that goes with that. The smokers who volunteered to come forward and be in these ads show that reality,” Frieden said.

The people were paid for their TV appearances because of agreements between advertising agencies and the Screen Actors Guild. The amount they received was not immediately available.

Similarly graphic advertisements have run in New York, Massachusetts and California, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Tobacco companies last year sued to block the requirement that they put pictures of people with smoking-related diseases on cigarette packs. Frieden said this campaign was conceived before that legal challenge.

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