Telling the stories of real smokers - however grotesque and scary - via a national anti-smoking ad campaign has helped between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans quit the habit, the Centers for the Prevention of Disease Control said in a report today.
The numbers far exceeded the "Tips From Former Smokers" campaign's goals: More than 200,000 quit after the three-month campaign, and researchers expect at least half of those will remain smoke-free.
The percentage of people who tried to quit rose by 12 percent, representing 1.6 million attempts, surveys showed. The toll-free number (1-800-QUIT-NOW) displayed during the ads got 132 percent more calls.
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Based on the input of smokers, the ads focused on smokers living with the ill effects of the habit. Nothing was off-limits: the ads focused on lung removal, limb amputations, heart attacks, paralysis and strokes.
"I wish we could make upbeat, happy ads," but that's not what smokers said would motivate them to quit, Tim McAfee, director of CDC's Office on Smoking and Health, told USA Today.
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Smoking costs the U.S. health care system $96 billion a year, according to the CDC. The ad campaign cost $54 million. That works out to less than $200 per year of life saved, McAffee said.
Similar campaigns in states and other countries have also been successful, getting more people to quit than ad campaigns that don't prompt the feeling of fear.
"The bottom line is we now know it works," McAfee told Time.