The CDC’s Anti-Smoking Ads Are Bad for Your (Mental) Health

More than 40 years of anti-smoking education have worked. So why is the government taking a shock-and-awe approach?

A message to the Centers for Disease Control: We get it. Smoking is bad. Really bad. We’re glad you want to save us from damaging our health. But your new anti-smoking ads are shocking, disgusting, and too provocative—and they’ve crossed the line.

I was only dimly aware of the CDC’s ad campaign until Sunday morning, when I opened up the Washington Post website on my iPad. There, in an ad on the righthand side of the page, was a man shaving—and a giant hole at the base of his throat.

“A Tip From A Former Smoker,” the ad warned. “BE CAREFUL NOT TO CUT YOUR STOMA.”

You may not know what a stoma is; basically it’s a surgically created hole in your body that is really gross but helps keep you alive. I only know this because I spent most of 2011 with a stoma of my own—a nasty intestinal infection sent me to the emergency room, and on May 1 doctors performed an emergency colostomy on me. I spent the next seven months with a hole in my belly, just under my sternum, dealing with all manner of gross stuff. It was horrifying and upsetting, and I am still recovering.

So when I saw the ad at the Washington Post website, I had a strange reaction: My face got flushed, my heart started beating faster, and I found myself nearly in tears. The CDC, in its effort to make sure I never light up a cigarette, had caused me a panic attack instead.

I should be embarrassed by this. And I am, a little. Mostly I’m hugely angry.

Understand, we’ve now been through more than two generations of anti-smoking efforts by the federal government. There’s a whole arc on Mad Men devoted to how the industry spent the 1960s dealing with growing anti-smoking sentiment.

And it’s worked! The CDC’s own numbers show that more than 40 percent of American adults were smokers in 1965. Today, that number is under 20 percent.

A lot of that is due to intensive educational efforts: Nobody under the age of 40 who went to public schools avoided an anti-tobacco lesson at some point. If you didn’t get the message in the classroom, the government and anti-smoking groups made sure you got the point some other way—through warnings on cigarette packages and advertisements on MTV. The cigarette industry, meanwhile, had to give up most of its advertising, and these days the only people who smoke in TVs or in the movies—aside from Don Draper, and even he smokes a lot less than he used to—are villains.

The message has clearly taken hold.

Yet: There’s still that stubborn 19.3 percent of adults who have made the choice to keep smoking. The truth is, that number has budged down by only 4 percent since 2000.

You can look at that statistic, and come to a couple of conclusions. A) For whatever reason, there are millions of Americans who have been through all the education efforts over the last 40 years and still routinely make a bad, dumb, stupid decision, and we’re just going to have to deal with it, or B) we can take a “shock and awe” approach that disregards the usual boundaries of taste in public discourse in hopes of sending the smoking rate down another point or two.

The CDC took the latter option, obviously. Which is why I got to spend the NCAA men’s basketball championship a couple of weeks ago watching a middle-aged woman give the graphic details of how smoking had destroyed her health.

Enough. Too much.

I understand this is real life. And I have nothing but sympathy for “Shawn,” the man with the stoma, or “Terrie,” the woman in the basketball ads. Their stories are tremendously sad.

But there’s something about the CDC campaign that’s gratuitous, and feels punitive. I don’t smoke. You probably don’t smoke either. Considered another way: More than 80 percent of Americans don’t smoke: We’re not just the majority, we’re a vast majority.

The “Tips From A Former Smoker” ads, though, aren’t targeted all that specifically. They’re seen by everybody. The non-smoking majority is being subjected to an assault on our senses because, hey, some people who should know better than to smoke keep deciding to smoke.

No doubt with the best of intentions, the Centers for Disease Control—a federal agency!—is helping turn the public sphere into a freak show. Freak shows have always been offered under the guise of “education,” and it’s no less sad, grotesque, and offensive when the government promotes them. Circuses, at least, usually have temerity to hide their freak shows in a tent. The CDC’s is impossible to avoid.

And I want so badly to avoid it.

The CDC wants to save our health. Great. The agency’s new campaign threatens to do other types of damage—to our public discourse and, heck, maybe even to our mental health. It’s time to stop.