The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is turning to shock and awe television and print ads to get the message out on the evils of tobacco, the number one cause of preventable death, killing more than 400,000 people and costing $96 billion in health care bills each year.

Last week, the CDC launched a $54 million campaign using some graphic television ads that some complain may be too gruesome, even for a younger generation of smokers weaned on graphic video games. The clips show real tobacco users telling their painful stories about how the effects of smoking impacted their lives.

Shawn Wright, who had a tracheotomy after being diagnosed with head and neck cancer four years ago, is in one of the print ads. The 50-year-old Washington state resident is shown shaving. His razor moves down toward a red gaping hole at the base of his neck that he uses to speak and breathe.

Tomorrow is Kick Butts Day in this state, when youth across the commonwealth join in the nationwide fight against tobacco use. The thrust of the campaign is for teens to encourage peers to remain tobacco-free and educate their home communities to the dangers of tobacco and the marketing practices of the tobacco industry.

There are grim statistics to spur this campaign. Nationwide, 19.5 percent of high school students still smoke, and another 1,000 kids become regular smokers every day. In our state, tobacco use claims 20,000 lives and costs $5.19 billion in health care bills each year. Currently, 18.4 percent of the state's high school students smoke.

A report by the U.S. Surgeon General says that while our nation has made tremendous progress in reducing teen smoking, it still remains a "pediatric epidemic." In announcing the new shock advertising campaign last week, Secretary of Health and Human Resources Kathleen Sebelius said the nation has come a long way in the last few decades, when smoking on airplanes and elevators was a common sight.

Despite those efforts, however, as well as increased tobacco taxes and the bans on smoking in many public places, the adult smoking rate hasn't changed much in the last decade.

That led to CDC changing tactics for a more graphic approach, using television, print and social media. The campaign also includes information on a national quit line and offers advice on how to kick the habit,

Glenn Leshner, a University of Missouri researcher who has studied the effectiveness of anti-smoking ads, said the idea behind the shock campaign is to create an image so striking that smokers and would-be smokers will think of it whenever they have an urge to buy a pack of cigarettes.

As for tomorrow's Kick Butts Day campaign, Mathew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the young people are sending two powerful messages to the older generation: They want the tobacco companies to stop targeting them, and they want elected leaders to protect them from tobacco.

"We know how to win the fight against tobacco," Myers said. "Elected officials across the nation should support these proven solutions, including higher tobacco taxes, strong smoke-free laws and well-funded tobacco prevention programs."

Any effort to save young lives is worth the funding, even if the prevention strategy includes a shock media campaign like the one unveiled last week by the CDC.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]