By Andrew Hyland

A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on the impact of graphic, hard-hitting ads that illustrate the many harms that come from cigarette smoking led researchers to a clear conclusion: Strongly emotional and graphic anti-smoking advertisements work.

These compelling ads are effective at increasing attempts to quit among adult smokers, regardless of the smoker’s desire to quit, income or educational level. And once these ads stop, the researchers found, calls to the state quitline dramatically fall. The ads referred to in this study are not designed to “sell” a product, like fast food or automobiles, but instead are paid public service ads that educate people about the devastating consequences of smoking, motivate smokers to quit and offer help to do so.

The study, which examined data from New York adult tobacco surveys conducted between 2003 and 2010, indicates that the odds of making an attempt to quit increase by 31 percent for current smokers who reported viewing at least one anti-smoking television advertisement in the past 12 months. Increased exposure to emotional and/or graphic advertisements led to a 38 percent rise in attempts. In addition, low-income and low-education smokers were not influenced to quit by anti-smoking ads unless there was an emotional and/or graphic component to the ad.

The study also charted a marked decrease in calls to the New York State Smokers’ Quitline (866-NY-QUITS/866-697-8487; once these ads went off the air. As the director of the Quitline, I see day to day what the authors are reporting. Thousands of smokers called the New York Quitline when these ads were running, and we were able to provide them with the help they needed to get off of a deadly product. But unfortunately, due to budget cuts, hard-hitting ads are rarely seen, and consequently we see significantly fewer smokers calling us for help.

The study also points out that these ads motivate even subgroups that typically have a harder time quitting – those with lower incomes and heavy smokers. Emotive ads get people to think about quitting and make attempts to quit, so consequently, when media budgets are cut, these people don’t call and don’t get help to quit.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in New York State, and smoking-related illnesses cost the state more than $8 billion in medical costs annually. Hard-hitting ads that motivate smokers to quit, backed up with an available quitline, work well to help people quit smoking. We know this approach pays off in so many ways. These ads work to save money and to save lives. It’s important for New York to keep these ad campaigns funded.

Andrew Hyland, PhD, is chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.