NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A 2012 national TV ad campaign that featured real people living with diseases and injuries caused by smoking was tied to 1.6 million smokers making quit attempts and over 100,000 kicking the habit, according to new research from U.S. health officials.
The campaign, known as "Tips From Former Smokers," ran between March and June across the nation and reached about four of every five smokers. In addition to TV ads, the campaign featured radio, billboard and digital ads, including Spanish versions.
"This is probably the biggest campaign that has been done in the world. It wasn't the longest… but sending it to over 40 million smokers in a country of over 250 million (adults) is fairly unprecedented," Dr. Tim McAfee, the study's lead author and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Office on Smoking and Health in Atlanta, said.
Over the past several decades, the number of people in the U.S. who smoked cigarettes or used tobacco products fell steadily until about 2004, when smoking rates stalled at about one smoker for every five Americans.
In an effort to jumpstart another decline, the CDC launched the $54 million ad campaign with the help of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
To see whether the advertisements were linked to any significant increases in the number of people making quit attempts or giving up smoking for good, the researchers surveyed thousands of smokers and nonsmokers before and after the campaign.
Overall, 3,051 smokers and 2,220 nonsmokers took both surveys. Of those, about 79 percent of smokers and 74 percent of nonsmokers said they saw at least one of the ads.
On the first survey about 31 percent of smokers said they had tried to quit smoking within the past three months. After the campaign, about 35 percent said they had made quit attempts during the three months the ads were on television.
Of those who reported making an attempt to quit smoking during the campaign, about 13 percent reported they were still not smoking at the time of the second survey.
Applying those rates to the U.S. population, the researchers write in The Lancet that about 1.6 million smokers nationwide made an attempt to quit smoking and 220,000 were not smoking at the end of the campaign.
Although the majority of those people will go on to become smokers again, McAfee and his colleagues estimated about 100,000 will give up the habit for good, which would add up to half a million years of life to the U.S. population.
The researchers also found about 32 percent of nonsmokers reported talking with their friends and family about the dangers of smoking before the campaign. That grew to about 35 percent after the ads finished running.
The study can't prove the increase in quit attempts was directly caused by the campaign. But McAfee told Reuters Health the researchers searched newspaper and media records for other mass-marketed antismoking campaigns during their study and ruled out an effect from seasonal differences.
"This is a really significant study for a number of reasons," Melanie Wakefield, director of the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer at the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, said.
"First of all because it's a national initiative… It's adopted a best practices approach to launching a mass media campaign… and it's also got a really good evaluation around it," Wakefield, who has studied mass media anti-smoking campaigns but was not involved with the new research, told Reuters Health.
The campaign was also cost effective, according to the researchers.
They write that preliminary calculations suggest the advertisements cost less than $200 for every year of life saved, which is "among the most cost effective preventive interventions."
According the McAfee, a second round of the advertisements recently appeared on U.S. televisions with another planned for 2014.
"We would be delusional if we thought we could permanently change the rate people quit with one three-month campaign," he said. "You have to keep doing these things."
SOURCE: bit.ly/1aVmHg2 The Lancet, online September 9, 2013.