The latest anti-tobacco ads tell Philly smokers: It's okay to try, try, try again to quit

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A new federal ad campaign hopes to motivate smokers to quit by absolving their failed attempts

Because of Philadelphia’s high smoking rates, the city has the dubious distinction of being part of an innovative federal advertising campaign that will exhort smokers to keep trying to quit after they backslide.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s two-year “Every Try Counts” campaign (everytrycounts.gov) will launch next month in 35 markets, funded with $60 million in tobacco industry fees. The print, radio, digital and billboard messages build on research that shows smokers try to kick their addictive habit an average of 10 times before they finally succeed.

“One of the things we’ve learned from talking to smokers is they carry around a huge amount of negative baggage. They consider themselves failures,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “It’s one of the barriers to quitting they put up because they fear they’ll fail again. Our message is: You didn’t fail. You just haven’t finished the journey.”

In Philadelphia, 22 percent of adults over age 18, and 7 percent of teenagers, are cigarette smokers, despite efforts to reduce those rates. In recent years, the city and state have adopted a $4.60-per-pack cigarette tax; limited the number of cigarette vendors near schools and in low-income neighborhoods; helped to ban smoking in public housing units; and has run a hard-hitting ad campaign that denounces the tobacco industry’s aggressive marketing to the poor and minorities.

In addition to using shrewd psychology, many of the new FDA ads will be strategically located in and around gas stations and convenience stores, where 86 percent of cigarettes are sold. Although the FDA initially worried that retailers would reject the advertising for fear of snuffing cigarette income, they turned out to be receptive, Zeller said.

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The FDA’s new anti-smoking ads will run in and around stores that sell cigarettes.

Still, physician Thomas Farley, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Health, wondered whether the new messaging will motivate — or mitigate — smoking cessation.

“Smoking is Philadelphia’s number one killer, so any effort to help smokers quit is welcome. But studies show that the most effective anti-smoking ads motivate smokers with tough images of the consequences of smoking, like those in ‘Tips From Former Smokers,'” Farley said, referring to graphic public health ads showing people living with smoking-related diseases and disabilities. “I hope that the FDA’s soft ‘Every Try Counts’ messages aren’t drowned out by the tobacco companies’ cigarette ads that smokers see every day.”

On the everytrycounts.gov website, wannabe quitters can sign up for a phone text messaging program that will send them words of encouragement and helpful tips, such as ways to fight cravings. They can also download an app to track triggers and smoking patterns, and talk by phone with trained cessation coaches about quit-smoking medications.

The 35 counties chosen for the campaign all have adult smoking rates above the national average, which hit 16.8 percent in 2014. Among the cities where ads will run are St. Louis, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Tampa, and Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, tobacco companies keep coming up with more products to hook consumers, especially young ones. In a recent article for the Inquirer, Farley decried increasingly popular mini-cigars that are infused with tasty flavorings as a “pernicious trick.”

“It’s hard to imagine a more cynically designed product than a cheap smoke laced with sweet candy flavorings,” he wrote.