Renewed war on a legal but still lethal drug

March 16, 2012 

The tobacco education campaign that began in earnest after the Surgeon General’s Report of the mid-1960s was one of the most effective anti-drug efforts in American history.

Without the prohibition or punitive laws that have proven so expensively ineffective in fighting the sale and use of other substances (and created megabillion-dollar criminal empires), the campaign against smoking is a “war on drugs” that unambiguous statistics show to have been mostly successful.

Since a time and culture that resembled a prolonged episode of “Mad Men,” with smoke-filled workplaces and people lighting up in every public and private venue, rates of smoking have plummeted. Anti-smoking laws, rather than targeting smokers themselves, have instead focused on the health and comfort of non-smokers by restricting the places where smoking is permitted.

The happy result is that only one of every five Americans is now a smoker.

That’s still too many for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well it should be for an agency whose mission is public health. And the fact is that while smoking doesn’t appear to be on the rise, the decline seems to have stopped. Despite higher tobacco taxes and bans on almost all public smoking, the smoking rate has bottomed out, at least for now, at about 20 percent.

Maybe that’s destined to be a bottom-line figure. Maybe, on the other hand, routine anti-smoking messages have become, after 50 years, just another kind of societal white noise we’ve learned to tune out.

On the assumption that the latter is the case, CDC has announced plans for an aggressive campaign targeting that holdout minority, a $54 million public service advertising blitz beginning Monday that will feature real human beings and real -- and graphic -- consequences of smoking: heart disease, tracheotomy, paralysis, amputation, cancer-damaged tissue.

This isn’t just a shot in the dark: Medical and media experts say unusually graphic images and unvarnished messages have proven to be effective in changing behavior. It’s obviously the thinking behind the stark, unflinching spots created for The Meth Project.

The aim is to make the messages and images so indelible that they will stick in the minds of smokers. The danger is that smokers will respond to especially disturbing ads by just turning away. The trick, according to University of Missouri media researcher Glenn Leshner, is to get and hold smokers’ attention while also reassuring them that they can kick the habit and enjoy good health.

The CDC’s goal is to get 50,000 people to quit smoking. If this campaign succeeds at anywhere close to that number, the savings in health care and human costs will make the price tag look like milk money.

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