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CDC: Smokers without legs, other graphic ads prompted 100,000 to quit

September 09, 2013|By Karen Kaplan
  • Ads like this one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's anti-smoking campaign prompted an estimated 100,000 smokers to quit last year, a new study finds.
Ads like this one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's… (Associated Press )

A hard-hitting, $54-million public health campaign designed to scare smokers into quitting appears to have prompted 100,000 people to give up cigarettes, according to a new report. That works out to a cost of $540 per quitter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s "Tips From Former Smokers" campaign featured real-life stories of people who suffered serious health problems as a result of tobacco use. In one, a man named Brandon shows off his prosthetic legs after his own legs were amputated. In another, a partially paralyzed stroke victim named Suzy describes what it’s like to be confined to a bed, cared for by her 23-year-old son.

The ads appeared on television, radio, in print and online for 12 weeks in spring 2012. Funds for the media campaign were provided as part of the Affordable Care Act. (The $54-million price tag was less than what the tobacco industry spends in three days to promote smoking, the report says.)

Researchers from the CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health used a market research firm to come up with a nationally representative panel of 5,903 smokers and 5,203 nonsmokers. Among the smokers, 78% saw at least one "Tips" ad on TV, 17% heard at least one ad on the radio, 8% saw one in print and 23% saw one online.

Before the 12-week ad campaign, the proportion of smokers who tried to quit for at least one day in the previous three months was 31.1%. At the end of the campaign, the figure was 34.8% - a relative increase of 12%.

Most of those would-be quitters didn’t succeed. But when the campaign was over, 13.4% of those who tried to quit were still hanging in there.

When the CDC researchers extrapolated those figures to the U.S. population as a whole, they calculated that 1.64 million additional smokers tried to quit during the campaign. Among them were 220,000 people who were still smoke-free at the end of the campaign. To be conservative, the researches set aside the nearly 20,000 people who tried to quit in the campaign’s final week. Of the remaining 200,000, they figured that half would wind up relapsing.

That still left 100,000 extra people who successfully quit smoking during the "Tips" campaign. The results were published online Monday by the journal Lancet.

A study like this can’t prove that the disturbing ads prompted more people to quit. But the researchers argued that this is the most likely explanation. The smokers who saw the ads were more likely to make a quit attempt than the smokers who didn’t, they noted. Also, the nationwide quit rate had been pretty flat for three years before the campaign started. It would be quite a coincidence for some other factor to bump it up just as the ads came out.

(The study authors noted that employees of the CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health were not involved in collecting data for the study, though they did analyze and interpret the data and write the final report.)

The CDC’s original goal for "Tips" was to get 500,000 additional smokers to try to quit and for 50,000 of them to succeed. The campaign was renewed for 2013.

Return to Science Now.

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