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A hard-hitting national smoking-cessation campaign -- the first ever to be federally funded -- proved very successful, essentially tripling the number of smokers that officials hoped would be inspired to quit, according to a new study.
The researchers estimated that 200,000 Americans were motivated to quit for the duration of the campaign or longer. Many more at least tried to stop smoking.
"Our goal was to get half a million quit attempts, and the study findings show it was more like a million and a half," said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the Office on Smoking and Health, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC's national Tips From Former Smokers campaign kicked off in March 2012 and lasted three months, reaching out to both the nearly 45 million current smokers in the United States and their friends and family.
The $54 million effort featured testimonials from former smokers who had suffered amputations, heart attacks, strokes, and head and neck surgery because of their addiction.
Ads ran on television and radio, in print, and online. Along with the testimonials, the CDC ads guided people to national smoking-cessation telephone helplines and online resources.
To assess the campaign's impact, a team led by McAfee surveyed more than 5,000 randomly selected Americans before and after the ads ran. About three-fifths were smokers, and the rest were nonsmokers.
Three of four people surveyed saw at least one of the campaign's TV ads, the CDC found. The ads prompted a 12 percent increase in smokers who tried to quit, and more than one in 10 who tried to quit had remained tobacco-free.
The new findings appeared online Sept. 9 in the journal The Lancet.
Extrapolating these findings to the total United States population, the CDC estimates that 1.6 million smokers tried to quit due to the campaign, and more than 200,000 remained tobacco-free by the end of the campaign. The CDC expects that about 100,000 of the smokers who quit will be able to stay away from tobacco for good.
"The study makes it clear that a sustained, hard-hitting campaign is effective and still needed," said Thomas Glynn, director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society. "A campaign like this, that is both graphic and educational, drives home the fact that tobacco use is something that causes real, sustained pain."
A national smoking-cessation helpline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) experienced a 132 percent increase in calls during the campaign, with 200,000 more calls than were recorded for the same period in 2011, according to the CDC study.
Nonsmokers also appear to have been prompted to take action. The rate of nonsmokers who urged friends or family to quit smoking nearly doubled, from 2.6 percent prior to the campaign to 5.1 percent after the campaign ended. More nonsmokers also reported talking with friends or family about the dangers of smoking, increasing from nearly 32 percent prior to the campaign to about 35 percent afterward.
To craft the campaign, the CDC consulted with health officials who had run prior campaigns in cities, states and other countries, McAfee said.
But the best advice came from about 10,000 smokers who were consulted while the CDC designed the campaign about what would make the most impact.
"What we heard from them was the thing that would be most motivating would be real stories from real smokers about the harm smoking had done to them," McAfee said.
The CDC will continue the campaign, using new testimonials to keep the message fresh. The agency already broadcast a sequel campaign that ran from March to June 2013.
"We would love to continue to do this," McAfee said. "We're doing it three months out of the year because that's basically the money we have. In other countries, they've done year-round campaigns."
The study noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to launch a similar anti-tobacco campaign in 2014 targeting teenagers and young adults.
Nonprofit anti-tobacco groups like the American Cancer Society also might take the lessons from the CDC campaign and use them in their own ad efforts, Glynn said. It is likely, however, that only a coalition of several or many groups would be able to have the same impact as the CDC campaign.
"It is expensive. It cost about $54 million, which for most organizations would be a very big spend," Glynn said. "The CDC is in the best position to do this."
Group efforts will be needed to combat the tobacco industry, which spent $8.6 billion on advertising in 2011, he said.
McAfee said the CDC estimates as many as 330,000 years of life were saved as a result of people quitting smoking due to the campaign.
"That adds up to less than $200 we spent per year of life saved," he said. "It's like the bargain of the century for public health."
To find out more about how to quit smoking, visit Smokefree.gov.