US launches anti-smoking offensive with wrenching personal stories of smokers

WASHINGTON - US health officials launched a hard-hitting offensive on Thursday aimed at slashing the numbers of smokers across the country, following the success of a similar campaign last year.

The new campaign encourages smokers to kick the habit with a series of advertisements spotlighting the wrenching personal stories of individuals battling smoking-related illnesses or diseases.

"This campaign is saving lives and saving dollars by giving people the facts about smoking in an easy-to-understand way that encourages quitting," US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

A campaign run on similar lines last year proved effective, with the number of calls to helplines dedicated to people trying to quit smoking soaring following the advertisements.

The number of calls to health services doubled to around 200,000 during that campaign, which cost US$54 million (S$67 million) and lasted 12 weeks.

Page views of a quit smoking website tied to the campaign increased five-fold compared to the same period in 2011.

Health officials say the campaign may have encouraged tens of thousands of people to quit smoking.

Nearly 70 per cent of smokers in the United States say they want to stop, according to the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which is running the campaign.

The advertisements will blanket across television, radio, newspaper and other outlets, encouraging smokers to call a free hotline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) in order to access counselling services and information.

"Smoking and second-hand smoke kill - and they also harm smokers and non-smokers," CDC Director Tom Frieden said.

"These are the kinds of ads that smokers tell us help motivate them to quit, saving lives and money."

Despite the proven dangers of tobacco, nearly one in five adults in the US smoke.

Approximately 90 per cent of smokers take up the habit before they turn 18 and many suffer serious health problems while young.

More than 440,000 Americans die each year from smoking-related diseases, while for each death, approximately 20 people live with one or more illness caused by the habit.