Credit: Lucas Zoltowski @ZoltowskiLucas

Smoking Gun

Posted January 4, 2017, under Gee Whillickers!

A very common New Year’s resolution is to quit smoking. This reminded us that a few years ago we did an article that explored how cigarettes have been marketed over the years. We mentioned then that we could do a whole article just on anti-smoking advertising efforts. This is that article.

*WARNING: Images and links in this article involve images and information that may be profoundly disturbing. Continue at your own risk.

Getting Ugly

The most obvious tactic in anti-smoking advertising is to boost awareness of why people should quit: Because smoking is detrimental to health in an astonishing variety of ways.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a long-running “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign that focuses on exactly how smoking ravages one’s own body, with real-life examples. Men and women with holes in their throats, missing limbs, all sorts of cancers and other diseases.

Another example is this interactive site which visually details each of the myriad ways that smoking can affect a body. Be advised: while this is technically safe for work (models are clothed, if scantily), clicking to learn about effects on a body part makes the site zoom in on the area. Including the genital area. That could be awkward.

While the famous “Smoking Kills” tagline is perfectly on-point, it might not be enough. “We all die someday!” So these campaigns graphically show how smoking won’t just kill you; smoking will torture you to death.

Secondhand Sanctions

Another advertising vector is to warn against the dangers of secondhand smoke. The ads take pains to point out that anyone in the vicinity of a smoker could be at risk of the same health issues as the smoker… even including pets!

Think of the Children!

Naturally, children are at the greatest risk from secondhand smoke. So a very common approach is to invoke the presence of kids, and the dangers to them. It’s a powerful message, because what decent parent wants their child to suffer because of their elders’ decisions?

Other ads point out that your children don’t even have to be conceived yet for smoking to cause problems for them.


Unfortunately, while this last bit in particular should make any responsible person try at least to indulge their habits well away from literally any other living creature, it’s questionable whether even the often-nightmarish images and tsunami of evidence would compel a smoker to outright quit.

Nicotine is highly addictive and, as covered in our earlier article, was the subject of decades of widespread propaganda that positioned the habit as a key to being “cool,” as an aid to health, or as an essential part of relaxation and good times. Quitting smoking is notoriously hard.

Don’t Even Start

That’s why organizations like Truth are targeting younger people, who either haven’t been smoking long or haven’t started at all. Their multi-pronged campaign includes commercials showing up everywhere from YouTube to movie theaters; print ads; sponsoring concerts, and more.

With the stated goal of eliminating smoking entirely, Truth points to impressive and hopeful statistics in that direction. Like the statistic that today only 6% of teens smoke, compared to over 20% at the start of the millennium.

They don’t attempt to take full credit for these statistics, but their aggressive ad campaigns since the late ’90s have to have affected millions of people.

Another series of ads by a different group even took swipes at an earlier pro-smoking campaign aimed at younger people.

The bitter irony is, by the time that series ran, those most likely to recognize Joe Camel were no longer children.

The Final Word

We really don’t mean to be preachy, but there’s no sugarcoating it: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls smoking cigarettes “the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the United States, killing about 480,000 Americans each year.” They also say, “Smoking-related diseases cost the United States more than $300 billion a year, including nearly $170 billion in direct health care costs and more than $156 billion in lost productivity.”

Ultimately, it’s an individual choice whether to start or continue the habit — despite the inescapable effect on others. But if you’re thinking about quitting, resources abound. Many of these campaigns include tips and multifaceted support, like this page on the CDC website. Or you could visit CVS, which made waves a few years ago by terminating all tobacco sales, franchise-wide. The move came with a pledge to help people quit smoking instead, as reflected on their website.

Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web.