The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants teenagers to know the "real cost" of smoking – and it's not measured in dollars. Teens who pick up a cigarette habit will wind up paying with their skin, their teeth and even their freedom, a new ad campaign warns.
Other government agencies and public health groups have produced commercials about the dangers of smoking. The $54-million "Tips From Former Smokers" campaign from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prompted about 100,000 smokers to quit after airing for just 12 weeks, according to a 2013 study in the journal Lancet. California's long-running anti-tobacco campaign is credited with pushing the smoking rate in the Golden State below 12%, the second-lowest in the country.
But Tuesday's public education campaign is the FDA's first foray into antismoking advertising. It's an example of how the federal agency is using some of the powers it received as part of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.
The "Real Cost" campaign is aimed at the estimated 10 million kids between the ages of 12 and 17 who are not yet hooked on tobacco but may be tempted to use cigarettes. Given that nearly 90% of adult smokers picked up the habit before they turned 18, reaching kids in this age group is crucial, according to Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA's commissioner.
"This campaign is about trying to reach those kids who are on the cusp of smoking," Hamburg explained in an FDA video. "If, through this educational campaign, we can help kids make really important, informed choices not to smoke, that will matter for the rest of their lives."
Undoubtedly, kids have heard that smoking can lead to chronic – and fatal – diseases like emphysema and lung cancer. They may even be aware that smoking increases the risk of stroke and coronary heart disease. But those risks can seem impossibly abstract to a kid in junior high.
Instead, the FDA campaign focuses on consequences that are "personally relevant" to teens, said Mitchell Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products. That includes cosmetic consequences, like wrinkled skin and rotten teeth.
One of the ads portrays smoking as a stringy-haired thug that forces teens to hand over money, take leave of their friends and head outside to "pucker up." The tag line: "Cigarettes are bullies. Don't let tobacco control you." (You can see that ad in the video above.)
The ads also emphasize that menthol cigarettes – which are popular among kids – are just as dangerous as regular cigarettes.
The agency says it will take steps to evaluate the effectiveness of its ads.
Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC. Tobacco use leads to more than 480,000 deaths in this country each year and it costs the healthcare system $289 billion annually, the FDA says.
The $115-million "Real Cost" campaign – to be funded with industry user fees – is only the first of several targeted efforts intended to highlight the dangers of tobacco use. The FDA says it will be rolling out additional public health campaigns in the next two years, including one aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. (In Los Angeles, smoking rates among LGBT adults are 50% higher than for straight adults, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported in November.) Other campaigns will focus on rural teens and multicultural youth.
The "Real Cost" commercials will appear on TV, radio, in print and online in 200 markets nationwide. The campaign begins on Feb. 11.