Brett quit smoking four years ago, well after losing most of his teeth. By his mid-30s, gum disease from tobacco smoking had ravaged the bones and tissue supporting his teeth — 16 removed in one surgery. At 42, nearly toothless, Brett still smoked.
He soberly looks at the viewer in a new “scared straight” television ad as he shares his story, hoping smokers will take heed and quit.
“My tip to you is, your smile says a lot about you,” says the New Mexico resident, who pauses to laboriously remove his fake teeth. He opens wide, displaying the void. “What does this say about you?”
His discomfiting ordeal is part of the latest batch of “you can do it” ads in a campaign featuring ex-smokers sharing their smoking-related health traumas. Produced by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the gripping online, radio and TV spots offer an 800-QUITNOW phone line and practical get-started advice, plus other support to stop smoking.
The hope is that the 30-second spots labeled “Tips From Former Smokers” will be as successful as the initial series in 2012. That ad campaign was found to have prompted 1.6 million smokers to try quitting, with 100,000 of them succeeding. The goal had been half that.
Nicotine’s addictive power over smokers results in dismally low quit rates, said Michael Siegel, a Boston University public health professor. Of every smoker who tries to quit, only 3 percent will remain non-smokers by year’s end, he said. Those who viewed the CDC’s TV spots, however, quit in much higher numbers — about 6.3 percent.
And so the new installment from the CDC was posted and broadcast this week, featuring Amanda, a woman who delivered her baby two months early as a consequence of smoking; Rose, who is bald and has brain cancer; Michael, who began smoking when he was 9, and Felicity, who also lost her teeth.
Each ad directs the viewer to “call now,” encouragingly adding, “you can quit.”
At the CDC website, a host of help awaits, from how to prepare to quit to how to enlist supportive friends. There also is a link for medicines and nicotine replacement products, which include nicotine gum and nicotine patches, even prescription drugs. But the CDC doesn’t mention electronic cigarettes.
The hopeful signs of more smokers quitting comes amid mounting concern and controversy surrounding electronic cigarettes and what role, if any, they might play in helping people quit tobacco.
While e-cigarettes were designed to help people wean off of nicotine, many smokers use them to replace tobacco smoking where it isn’t permitted. But testimonials abound by smokers who say they were able to kick nicotine by using e-cigarettes, and now inhale vapors from flavored juice that is nicotine-free.
Soaring in popularity in recent years, the e-cigarette devices deliver nicotine in a liquid that is battery heated, creating an unscented vapor for inhaling. E-cigarettes originally resembled traditional cigarettes but have evolved into mostly metal pen-like units with refillable cartridges that hold the liquid, also called juice, and are sold in a dizzying array of flavors and strengths. Proponents of the potential for e-cigarettes to help people quit tobacco note that many of the liquids are nicotine-free — they say the allure of the devices is that they replace the oral fixation/physical or ritualistic pleasures of smoking.
Many smoking-cessation advocates feel conflicted about the use of e-cigarettes, but the still-unknown health impacts sway them away from the products for now. The liquid that is vaped comes from all over the world, from mom-and-pop online storefronts in the U.S. to those in foreign countries with unknown health standards.
Among the more prominent supporters is Boston University’s Siegel, who believes that the question is not whether e-cigarettes are safer, but how much safer. Absent results of various research underway, Siegel said that any product with the potential to reduce smoking should be explored.
So why doesn’t the CDC include e-cigarettes among its cessation and quitting tips?
“The real reason is that they don’t condone anything that looks like smoking, even if it delivers none of the smoke and even if it delivers no nicotine,” Siegel said. “It is the ideology of the smoking action that they oppose.”
For its part, CDC spokesman Darryl Konter said that the gut-wrenching personal stories are among “proven strategies to help smokers quit successfully. And while we have heard from some former smokers who say e-cigarettes helped them quit, there is not yet any conclusive scientific evidence that e-cigarettes can work as a cessation aid.”
The CDC claims remarkable success in getting smokers to quit — the number of Americans who smoke today stands at about 18 percent, compared to 42 percent in 1964, when the U.S. surgeon general issued the first federal government report that linked smoking to health problems.
In the new CDC “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign, Felicita, 50, shares how she lost her teeth at a drastically young age because the cigarettes “were eating my gums, the bone,” she tells viewers. Felicita continued to smoke as her gums declined. She bled onto her pillow and had to rise in the middle of the night to wash out the blood from her mouth. She now wears dentures and feels self-conscious about her appearance. “You think about your teeth a lot more when you don’t have any,” she says in her online biography.
Felicita says she is grateful to have been able to quit, and that she can now hold her own while walking with her four children. Yet she seldom smiles and has permanent damage from smoking. “I feel like I destroyed my health and my appearance with cigarettes.”
At age 30, Amanda of Wisconsin is perhaps the youngest ex-smoker featured in the ad campaign:
“My name is Amanda and I smoked while I was pregnant. My baby was born two months early.”
Amanda started smoking in fifth grade and quickly the behavior became a daily habit. How addicted was the elementary school student? She would smoke outside in the frigid snowy winters of Wisconsin. She became pregnant while she was in college and failed to quit. She continued puffing on her pack-a-day habit, which led to her daughter requiring weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. Premature births are among the many risks of smoking, according to the CDC.
“I knew that smoking was bad … I didn’t think I would have a premature baby,” Amanda says into the camera. “I couldn’t hold her much in those first weeks. It’s time I’ll never get back. Smoking took that from me.”
Rose is bald, 59, and bears a visible scar on her scalp. Her life has been uprooted by her nicotine addiction. She had to move from her beloved small town to a city where she underwent chemotherapy and radiation. She has lost part of her lung but finally quit. Her advice to smokers: “Plan ahead. Your lung cancer could spread to your brain.”
Michael, 57, an Alaska native belonging to the Tlingit tribe, recalls his repeated attempts to quit. He became hooked at age 9 on the nicotine in tobacco products, but it was not until age 44 that he was faced with its price tag. He had been struggling to catch his breath and was diagnosed with what used to be called emphysema, but now is referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Even still, he did not give up cigarettes until he almost suffocated at age 52. He quit the same day. Michael now awaits a lung transplant. He’s been in and out of the hospital for help just to breathe. In his smoking-cessation message, he talks about the hidden victims of smoking.
“The idea that I wouldn’t be hurting anyone but myself was so wrong,” he says, “because I have a daughter I love dearly and I have grandchildren that mean the world to me. And you know I see how much pain I’m creating in their life.”