The $200 million federal anti-smoking campaign "Tips From Former Smokers" — which relies on sometimes gruesome testimonials on the health effects of tobacco — was mostly a flop and did not greatly boost the number of nonsmokers in the U.S.
That’s the finding of a new analysis published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by San Diego State University public health researcher John W. Ayers, and a team of investigators at the Santa Fe Institute and University of Illinois Chicago.
The "Tips" campaign — produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — included about a dozen commercials featuring a smoker who had suffered some frequently shocking debilitation as a result of tobacco use. But the researchers concluded the initiative “fizzled more than it popped,” in terms of actually getting smokers to quit.
The findings are based on analyses of Internet searches for information on how to quit smoking during the campaign.
In the first two years of the initiative, the researchers tracked the contents of online search queries to infer whether Americans were searching for smoking-related diseases, whether they were thinking about quitting smoking, when they were thinking about these topics, and if they searched more frequently for the risks being highlighted by "Tips" as a marker for engagement with the campaign.
What they found is that, during the first round of commercials in 2012, internet searches went up for more grisly risks like amputation or throat cancer resulting in a tracheotomy. But searches stayed flat for less visually shocking and better-known conditions such as asthma, heart attack and stroke. Internet queries for smoking cessation also rose by about 16 percent.
But in the first half of 2013, when "Tips" ran the same series of commercials as before, the Internet search results suggested they were less effective. The previous spike in searches related to the most gruesome and novel smoking consequences was cut in half, and on the whole there was no increase in smoking cessation related searches.
"Content that motivated people's interest during 2012 only seemed to motivate them about half as much when presented with the same content again in 2013," Ayers said. "The timing of these advertisements did not correspond to any increase in smoking cessation related internet searches.”
Noting “Tips” was the nation's “most costly tobacco control initiative," Ayers added: "In 2013 'Tips' stopped being effective, but we can improve the campaign to make it even more effective than when it began. Reflecting on the campaign as a whole, he added that visually shocking commercials tended to prompt more internet searches, but that shock becomes less effective over time. Our analysis shows we can't keep hammering on the same subject."
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