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Anti-smoking campaign by the CDC -- did it help?

September 25, 2012|By Rosie Mestel
  • Did a CDC anti-smoking campaign earlier this year have any effect?
Did a CDC anti-smoking campaign earlier this year have any effect? (Karen Bleier / AFP/ Getty…)

Did an aggressive anti-smoking campaign conducted earlier this year influence people to give up smoking? There's a good chance the $54-million campaign by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did have an effect, an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine reports.

But it was short -- just three months long. And the impressive-sounding $54 million pales in comparison to the $27 million spent every day by the tobacco industry for marketing, the authors wrote.

Nancy Rigotti and Melanie Wakefield described the campaign in the Annals of Internal Medicine, as well as what's known about its outcome so far. (The authors are at Massachusetts General Hospital and Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, respectively.) It featured personal stories by people affected by smoking and was transmitted on TV and radio, on billboards and in print, and through Facebook and Twitter.

People like Brandon, who lost his feet and fingertips from the smoking-related condition called Buerger's disease -- which affects blood vessels in the hands and feet.  People with head and neck cancers. People who were smokers and who managed to quit. They all told their stories.

Each ad also featured a phone number (1-800-QUIT-NOW) and a website ( where people could get information on how to go about quitting.

The CDC reported a doubling in calls to its quit line and a tripling in traffic to its website during the campaign. After the campaign ended, the number of calls and hits returned to baseline. But the agency plans a similar three-month campaign next year. It will be funded through money from the Affordable Care Act, as was the campaign this year.

Of course, ramped-up calls to quit lines and website hits are not the same as showing that more people successfully quit than would have otherwise. The CDC is conducting studies on the outcome of the campaign, but the authors write that there's reason to be hopeful based on data from prior public health campaigns targeting smoking. And quit numbers are just one way to measure success, they write: Other people could be induced never to start smoking to begin with.

The campaign's approach -- personal, emotionally fraught stories paired with a place to turn to for tangible help --  are a potent mix, wrote Rigotti and Wakefield, and “grounded in health communication research.” Because the stories involve actual people, it “reduces the tendency for smokers to generate counterarguments (‘That couldn’t happen to me’) or discount adverse health outcomes as uncommon among the smokers whom they know.” 

Though the campaign has ended, material from it -- including many personal stories -- can still be viewed at Particularly compelling are the videos featuring tips from real people who suffered the consequences of smoking. Such as how to live when you have a hole in your neck after a laryngectomy.

Graphic warnings featuring real people and real consequences, paired with places to go for help quitting, are also slated to appear on cigarette packs, as described in this earlier story, and this one, by L.A. Times staff writer Melissa Healy. But those Food and Drug Administration warnings have been held up by court challenges.

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