The government is trying to shock smokers into quitting with...

The government is trying to shock smokers into quitting with a graphic nationwide advertising campaign. Shawn Wright, pictured in this ad, had a tracheotomy after being diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Credit: AP/CDC

ATLANTA -- A graphic new ad campaign is designed to shock smokers into quitting with the sometimes-gruesome stories of people damaged by tobacco products, officials said Thursday.

The new effort confronts a hard truth: Despite increased tobacco taxes and smoking bans in many public places, the adult smoking rate hasn't really budged since 2003.

"When we look back on just a few decades to the days of smoking on airplanes and elevators, it can be easy to focus on how far we've come," Secretary of Health and Human Resources Kathleen Sebelius said at a news conference.

But smoking continues to take a devastating toll on the American public, and the new ads are meant to be "a wake-up call" to smokers who may not truly grasp the dangers that still exist, she added.

The billboards and print, radio and TV ads show people whose smoking resulted in heart surgery, a tracheotomy, lost limbs or paralysis. The $54-million campaign is the largest and starkest anti-smoking push by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its first national advertising effort.

The agency is hoping the TV spots, which begin Monday and will air for at least 12 weeks, will persuade as many as 50,000 Americans to stop smoking.

"This is incredibly important. It's not every day we release something that will save thousands of lives," CDC Director Thomas Frieden said in a telephone interview.

That bold prediction is based on earlier research that found aggressive anti-smoking campaigns using hard-hitting images sometimes led to decreases in smoking. After decades of decline, the adult smoking rate has stalled at about 20 percent in recent years.

A U.S. surgeon general's report on tobacco use by young people released last week summarized studies that looked at how effective similar past mass media campaigns have been.

"These are evidence-based ads, and they share true stories of real people," said Erika Seward, director of national advocacy for the American Lung Association. "This type of effort is long overdue."

A 2005 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found 19 percent of students with greater exposure to state-sponsored anti-tobacco ads reported smoking in the past 30 days compared with 27 percent of students with no exposure to such advertising.

The CDC ads are more graphic than spots that have aired nationally before.

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