New National Anti-Smoking Ad Campaign Adds Shock Value

In its first ever paid advertising effort, the CDC goes for the jugular to get folks to quit smoking. Will it be effective?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has unveiled its new national anti-smoking campaign, called “Tips from Former Smokers.” While the title sounds innocuous, the images are anything but. Be prepared to hear (and see) graphic tales of heart attacks, limb amputations, and tracheotomy holes on billboards, radio and TV. The more subtle, but equally dramatic subtext is that each person was diagnosed with their smoking-related ailment before age 40.

This is the first ever paid advertising effort (to the tune of $54 million) by the CDC, but Director Thomas Frieden, M.D. feels the campaign can potentially persuade as many as 50,000 Americans to stop smoking. The shock factor is squarely aimed at a weary “heard-it-all-before” public (as well as the Saw XIV generation). By jolting people back into consciousness about the dangers of smoking, the CDC is sending a clear message to smokers to quit now, and discourage young people from even starting smoking.

But how did we even get here, people? Growing up, I had my own anti-smoking proponents, called my parents. They were such militant anti-smokers that even after a playdate at a friend’s house (whose parents smoked), I’d be stripped naked in the foyer and thrown into a shower while my mom held her nose to start the washing machine. But I understand why: I heard stories about my dad’s Tio Chago, the uncle with the tracheotomy tube who died in his mid-40s. My mom’s Tia Rosa, also a chain smoker, died from cancer in her 50s. My dearest cousin Carmen (Rosa’s granddaughter), who never smoked a day in her life, recently died from lung cancer that spread to her brain at age 62.

In my rebellious 20s I became one of those annoying social smokers: drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. When I lived (briefly) in Italy, where everyone smoked liked chimneys and drank like fish, it was hard to say no to, well, anything. Not that I love dating myself, but that was more than a decade ago. I consider myself lucky to have not gotten hooked, but I've watched my friends try time and time again to quit.

In the past 40 years, even with all the medical research done, the cigarette companies indicted, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would even light up, let alone buy a pack (which ain’t cheap!). After decades of decline, the U.S. smoking rate has stalled at about 20 percent in recent years. So we Americans apparently still need the anti-smoking message drilled into our skulls, as graphically as possible. Research shows that shock value is effective. Since 2002, New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, a former smoker, has made the City adamantly smoke-free. In 2009, he launched a similarly graphic ad campaign, complete with amputees and oozing decay. Guess who was Bloomberg's health director at the time? Dr. Frieden. Currently, the only 14 percent of adult New Yorkers smoke -- an all-time low, according to the NYC Department of Health.

The CDC campaign isn’t just about freaking out us out with voice boxes and amputated limbs, however. The spots also highlight successful quitting tips from former smokers, such as tossing out ashtrays and cigarettes, to drive home the message to smokers (70 percent of whom want to quit) that they can quit and that free resources are available by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW or going to

And hey, if these ads don’t work, maybe I’ll consider renting out my mom.


Watch Now: Smoking Can Lead to Amputations

Watch Now: Tips from Smokers Who Quit Successfully

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