Smoking kills. The good news is today we have effective tools to fight it. But some are trying to take those tools away.
Smoking is the number one killer and public health challenge today, causing more deaths each year than automobile accidents, firearm-related injuries, HIV, illegal drug use, and alcohol abuse—combined. As a surgeon, it was the primary cause of the heart and lung disease that I operated on every day for 15 years.
In my home town of Nashville, Tennessee, approximately 110,000 people smoke—21% of the adult population. Each is cutting on average seven to ten years from their lifespan. Their habit is costing them years lost from family, friends, and loved ones. I take this issue seriously, and we recently launched a broadly supported, collective impact initiative called NashvilleHealth, which is rallying the community to address smoking as the number one health challenge to the vitality of our county.
To move the needle on tobacco use in Nashville and beyond, NashvilleHealth consulted a panel of nationally-prominent physicians and scientists about what actually works to curb smoking. All of them emphatically recommended promoting and strengthening the tobacco Quitline. They cited research showing the effectiveness of the Quitline, and the importance of its powerful awareness campaign, “Tips from Former Smokers” (Tips) Campaign from the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Members of Congress today have an opportunity to ensure Americans stay informed about the Quitline and its resources. The Tips Campaign has spurred over 1.8 million quit attempts through the Quitline, at a minimal cost of less than one-thousandth of one tenth of one percent of the federal budget.
The Tips Campaign has helped “at least 400,000 smokers quit smoking for good since 2012” according to my friend and colleague CDC Director Tom Frieden. That represents lives saved, but also substantial health care cost savings for the country. Smoking-related illnesses cost nearly $170 billion in direct health care costs, and the best way to stem those costs is by keeping our youth from starting and helping current smokers quit. The Tips Campaign has done just that.
Tips is a media campaign that highlights stories of real Americans who are suffering from illnesses caused by their tobacco use. These individuals share their stories so people get the help they need to quit before they develop these deadly diseases. And it’s working. The ads let smokers know they can call the nationwide Quitline number at 1-800-QUIT NOW to get the help they need to quit smoking for good. This year, nationwide calls to the Quitline doubled during the 20 weeks the Tips ads were aired on television. In Tennessee, calls to 1-800-QUIT-NOW increased by more than four times during these 20 weeks.
Kristy, one of the former smokers who shared her story in the Tips Campaign, is from Tennessee. She started smoking at 13, and in her thirties, she developed shortness of breath and a cough, struggled unsuccessfully to quit smoking, and her lung ultimately collapsed. She spent two weeks in the hospital where her doctors told her that she had early chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). That diagnosis was what it took Kristy to quit for good. Today, as a former smoker, Kristy can breathe well and play with her kids, and she is sharing her story to encourage others to get the help they need to quit for good.
As a U.S. Senator, before I was willing to support any federal spending, I always asked, are those taxpayer dollars going to be used responsible? Are they going to make a difference in improving the health and well-being of individuals and families? Studies have clearly demonstrated the Tips campaign has more than met that standard.
A peer-reviewed academic study of Tips found that, among individuals who were exposed to at least one Tips advertisement, quit attempts increased 12% relative to baseline, and 13.4% of those who attempted to quit were abstinent at follow-up. Additionally, the Tips campaign increased dialogue between smokers and their non-smoker friends and family members about the dangers of smoking and options for cessation. Furthermore, as a strategy, a second study found “Tips was not only successful at reducing smoking-attributable morbidity and mortality but also was a highly cost-effective mass media intervention.” It works.
At NashvilleHealth, this is the type of evidence-based data we listen to when seeking out solutions to reduce our city’s smoking rate, with the immediate goal to bring Nashville in line with the national average (21% vs. 16.8%).
What perplexes me is this: This year, the U.S. House of Representatives cut funding by $110 million for the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health – which will almost certainly result in the elimination of the Tips Campaign, as well as reduced funding for Quitline staffing and youth prevention programs. This funding cut translates into fewer smokers receiving the message about quit assistance, and thus fewer people stopping smoking. Many youth will miss out on powerful stories like Kristy’s which could deter them from picking up a lifelong tobacco habit. That is why we should all urge Congress to restore full funding for the program.
To improve well-being and promote a culture of health, let’s continue to identify and support programs and policies that will reduce tobacco use. Let’s fund programs that are proven effective. Nearly half a million people quit smoking for good thanks to the Tips campaign, but there are more than 40 million smoking Americans left. Let’s encourage Congress to restore funding for CDC’s Tips Campaign to reach all Americans and help them quit for good.