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Landmark Anti-Smoking Campaign Scares 100,000 Into Quitting

You may have seen Terrie Hall and struggled to watch her talk. Hall was once a competitive cheerleader, but now her mouth sags on one side and she’s lost her voice to smoking. In her halting YouTube account seen by millions, the North Carolina ex-smoker still fighting cancer makes a suggestion to those who’ve yet to quit: Record yourself reading nursery rhymes and singing lullabies.

“I wish I had,” she says, a gravely sound emitting from the hole in her neck. “The only voice my grandson’s ever heard is this one.”

Her one-minute tip is among 14 gripping testimonials seen by millions over YouTube, television, print and social media rolled out last year in an ambitious smoking-cessation blitz by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Featuring amputees attaching prosthetic legs and a bed-ridden stroke victim being bathed by her son, it marked the first national paid advertising education campaign by a federal agency. And this week, the $54-million scared-straight campaign funded by the Affordable Care Act was declared a stunning success. Advocates said they did not expect such dramatic results: double the quit-rate goal and almost triple the quitting-attempt rate, according to study results on the campaign published in the Lancet medical journal Monday.

Its key findings: 1.6 million people tried to quit, 200,000 quit right after the campaign ended, and 100,000 remain non-smokers.

“Hard-hitting campaigns like ‘Tips From Former Smokers’ are great investments in public health,” said Tim McAfee, director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health and lead author of the study, in a news release. “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.”

The ads ran for three months beginning in March 2012, just after the New Year’s resolution season, when the percentage of smokers trying to quit typically falls off.

‘The Fact That You May Die Is Not Highly Motivating’

In announcing the findings at a telephonic news conference Monday, CDC Director Tom Frieden introduced Hall, 52, and a woman who told reporters she quit her 17-year habit after she and her 5-year-old son watched Hall’s startling TV spot. Lisha Hancock, 37, said she didn’t see the spot until late 2012, when she and her kindergartner watched a show on DVR.

“I’m not sure if it was because of her voice or because it was something different than what we normally see on TV,” Hancock said of the mother-son experience. “But his question for me was why does she sound like that? And then when I replied it was because she smoked, he asked if mommy would sound like that. So, um, the first ad that she had impacted because I normally had a sore throat when I smoked. And seeing her throat in such a way made me realize that there’s more out there than lung cancer – there’s obviously throat cancer, and that scared me. I could see myself in her shoes had I continued to smoke.”

The campaign “succeeded beyond our highest hopes,” Frieden told the New York Times. “I think the fact that you may die is not highly motivating to people. The fact that the remainder of your life may be very unpleasant is, and that’s what the data shows. Not only do smokers die about 10 years younger than most people, but they feel about 10 years older than their age.”

Perhaps the most hopeful-and-inspiring-versus-scary was the ad featuring three ex-smokers, starting with Beatrice, who shared that, “The thought of my sons growing up without me inspired me.” The ad closes with her saying,  “We quit, you can, too.”

But it was the graphic images that were remembered, it seemed. Suzie suffered a stroke after years of smoking. Her blunt warning?  “Get used to losing your independence,” Suzie says, as her son is shown bathing her. She said she needs help eating, dressing and going to the bathroom as well.

A man named Shawn, 50, could be seen in print ads cautioning, “Be careful not to cut your stoma” as he pulled a shaving razor above his throat hole.

Despite the government’s efforts, cigarettes still have a firm hold on many Americans.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated one in five adults smokes.

President Obama’s Battle

Even some at the highest levels continue to fight nicotine addiction. President Barack Obama, with a virtual army of support at his disposal, is still battling the habit.  Even while signing into law a tough anti-smoking bill in 2009 aimed at keeping youth off nicotine, President Obama was a “closet smoker,” the Huffington Post reported.

First Lady Michelle Obama said in 2011 that the commander in chief had finally quit after many tries.

“From all of the women in my husband’s life, we want him to be healthy. He’s worked hard at it,” Mrs. Obama said during a 2011 interview on NBC’s “Today Show.” She did not share how he finally managed to quit. President Obama is apparently still working on the addictive pull of smoking, seen last month in what the New York Daily News described as unwrapping nicotine gum at a White House ceremony.

January 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health, which concluded that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer.  Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing more than 1,200 Americans every day. More than 8 million Americans live with a smoking-related disease, according to the CDC.

Each day, more than 1,000 youth under 18 become daily smokers, the CDC says. Smoking-related diseases cost Americans $96 billion a year in direct health care expenses, a substantial portion of which comes in taxpayer-supported payments.

Another round of Tips ads debuted earlier in 2013 and the CDC has a 2014 Tips ad production underway.

To view other testimonials:  www.cdc.gov/Tips

There is still hope.

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