How health officials helped 120,000 people quit smoking

The Alberta government is taking steps to prevent and reduce tobacco use among underage youth and limit children’s exposure to second-hand smoke. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

TORONTO – Dr. Tim McAfee has seen patients’ health decline from smoking, he’s treated them and in his latest crusade, he’s helped them kick their habit.

The director for the Centers for Disease Control’s smoking and health office says that in a four-month timespan, he helped 100,000 Americans butt out. And that’s a modest estimation.

“I’ve worked for a long time trying to figure out ways to help people quit smoking,” McAfee said. He was a primary care doctor for years working with patients on the ground.

“It was a total thrill to pull back the curtain and help smokers see what I was seeing as a doctor,” he told Global News.

Two different approaches

As McAfee and his team were preparing to release their results, another team was also preparing to release results of a long-term British study. After a decade of funding, researchers in the UK suggest 20,000 people stopped lighting up.

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But how did American and British health officials help more than 120,000 smokers kick their habit? With two very different approaches that included an advertising campaign, a quit line, some counselling, some free medicine and millions of dollars of government funding.

Global News takes a closer look at both approaches.

Read more: Smokers who quit before 40 save a decade of their lives: study

Real stories from real former smokers

McAfee said it’s because his U.S. team did its homework. It looked at other countries — from the United Kingdom, to New Zealand and Thailand — and how they built their anti-smoking campaigns.

The researchers polled about 10,000 smokers and asked them what would help them most. The answer was resounding: “the theme the smokers said was most helpful to them was real stories of suffering that smoking causes as opposed to death,” McAfee told Global News.

So his team created its $54 million campaign called Tips From Former Smokers.

It was a controversial project. About 20 former smokers shared their real life stories about how smoking changed their health.

They spoke candidly; their video autobiographies were graphic, cautionary tales that documented their downward spiral into poor health.

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Read more: Could plain packaging for cigarettes help Canadians quit smoking?

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In telling her story, Terrie Hall, who became one of the most memorable faces from the campaign, puts on a wig, inserts her fake teeth and covers a hole in her throat with a scarf. Her voice is deep and gravelly.

Read more: Woman featured in graphic anti-smoking ads dies of cancer, hailed as hero

Ultimately, Hall died of cancer last month but was applauded for her bravery in sharing her story. One of her ads received more than 2.8 million views on YouTube.

Warning: The video content may be disturbing to some viewers.

McAfee said he almost expected cheerful tidbits on how former smokers kicked their habits. It wasn’t exactly how it turned out.

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Some of the lowest rates of smoking are in the physician population.

Read more: Should smoking bans extend to public parks and beaches? Debate sparks controversy in Canada

“One of the reasons is that we see people suffering day in and day out, really seeing the harms of what smoking does to people, so it’s much harder to think about doing it when you’re confronting it,” McAfee said.

He suggests the campaign did the same for smokers. It turned statistics into something tangible to current smokers.

Mass media campaign nets widespread response

Between March 2012 and June 2012, the U.S.’ first ever national, federally-funded anti-smoking campaign ran on TV, radio, in newspapers, magazines, and online. That much airtime came with a $54-million price tag.

The ads all directed smokers to a quit line they could call for help. Meanwhile, the researchers surveyed the population before and after the campaign to gauge response.

Read more: Candy-flavoured tobacco products enticing Canadian students to take up smoking, survey says

During the campaign, there was a 12 per cent increase in the percentage of smokers who tried to quit. Thirteen per cent of these people still weren’t smoking by the time the campaign wrapped up.

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Based on their findings, the researchers say that 1.6 million people tried to quit during their four-month campaign, with over 200,000 of these smokers still abstinent by June 2012.

Read more: Snapshot of health care in Canada: What you need to know

Half of these people are expected to stay away from smoking long-term. McAfee says that the 100,000 is even a conservative estimate because it excludes other factors, such as the number of people who were inspired to quit months after the project.

During the campaign, there was a 132 per cent increase in the number of calls to the quit line — 200,000 more people called in 2012 compared to the same period the year before.

By March 2013, an identical campaign ran again for four months. The CDC hopes to do the same in 2014.

“It’s very gratifying and the big hope is that we’ll be able to at least keep doing this, not even to expand it,” McAfee said.

English campaign’s first decade helps 20,000 people quit

In England, a decade-long campaign reached out to disadvantaged groups — in this case, by offering weekly sessions with behavioural experts and medication of the smoker’s choice, all for free.

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Dr. Robert West, of University College London, said this time, it was a success because it received adequate funding from the start with a clear promise that the money would keep coming.

Over 10 years, the British government paid £400 million, but West says it was a worthy investment. His job was to evaluate the success of the project.

“No other country has this kind of combination of effective treatment, national coverage and rigorous monitoring,” he said.

He said it’s “definitely” worth adopting in Canada.

“It would actually save the economy money and represent a very sound financial investment – quite irrespective of the lives it would save,” he told Global News.

Efforts in Canada to combat smoking rates

The Canadian Cancer Society says that it isn’t surprised that both of these campaigns garnered strong response. The organization’s senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham said he hopes Ottawa and provincial governments take notice.

Read more: 6 Canadian game-changing ideas for global health care

“What we want in Canada is a comprehensive strategy, quit line and advertising. Together they’re more effective than one or the other,” he said.

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