What impact will the new government stop smoking campaign have on quit rates?

This week the government has launched their new stop-smoking advertising. Featuring a cigarette that mutates into a cancerous tumour, the message to smokers is stark ‘if you smoke you increase your risk of developing cancer’.

The £2.7m campaign will feature across TV, billboards and online for the next two months. Smokers are encouraged to visit their local pharmacies to get a quit-pack.

It follows-on from the government backed Stoptober campaign which encouraged a mass quit attempt, and is reputed to have had 270,000 sign-ups (although there are no published statistics on successful four-week quitters at the end of the month).

Given that smokers have been calculated to contribute to over a quarter of all cancers it’s no surprise that the government is taking action.

These high profile, co-ordinated campaigns have an important contribution to make in providing a trigger for smokers to attempt to quit, as well as shifting our culture from one that has condoned smoking for most of the last century, to one that is more condemning.

We have experience of speaking with groups of smokers and from them we have gathered some interesting attitudes and behavior that providing valuable insights into motivators and barriers to quitting.

  • Smokers know the population-wide risks that are associated with smoking. However, they are skillful at deflecting the personal risks by celebrating the long ‘healthy’ lives of other smokers they know. The macro-data about the diseases smoking causes need to be made genuinely believable and relevant for each smoker.
  • Smokers can have a tendency to deflate the impact of smoking as compared with other risk-taking behavior, such as the consumption of drinks or drugs, which reduces their compulsion to take action, and heightens their sense of injustice that society ‘has got it in for smokers’.
  • Smokers feel that smoking provides them with ‘me’ time and that they have an entitlement to this pleasure, particularly if they are facing adversity in their life. Stopping smoking must therefore provide a suitable alternative that can become similarly highly valued.
  • Smokers who are attempting to quit feel they are easily derailed from their efforts by small set-backs. They require immediate encouragement, often from multiple sources, to persevere rather than opt out of their attempt.
  • Smokers who provide regular carbon monoxide readings find this a very motivating way to reducing, or ceasing their smoking.
  • For some smokers, nicotine replacement products, and other quitting aids can be essential props to becoming smoke free. The free, and easy availability of such products is therefore essential.
  • Smokers who are/have attempted to quit say that advertising provided a timely ‘reminder’ or ‘nudge’ to take action having previously contemplated wanting to stop. Impact on ‘committed’ smokers was minimal.
  • Smokers are not generally motivated to quit by the cost savings that they will make. Despite the high, and ever rising cost of cigarettes they are often perceived to be ‘good’ value for the pleasure they provide.
  • Smokers who would like to quit, but who live with other smokers who are not willing to stop, find it extremely difficult to sustain their efforts, and in most cases rarely succeed in their attempts. Stop smoking services need to be better able to take a co-ordinated whole household approach.

To us, the insights we have gathered from the public, illustrate strongly how it is essential that stop smoking campaigns need to combine national high profile messaging and reminders of the perils of smoking and the quit tools available, with a more local, personalised and ongoing support service that is tailored to the needs of particular smoking groups. Without this, advertising alone it’s unlikely to achieve sustained change.

From April-September 2012 we spoke with young women on the Isle of Wight who smoke whilst pregnant. We used our findings to draw up recommendations for adaptations to the local NHS stop smoking service. This builds on previous smoking research undertaken with a broader cross-section of adults in North-East Essex and people with lung cancer in the South-West of England.