ATLANTA -- The federal government says its graphic ad campaign showing diseased smokers has been such a success that it is planning another round next year to nudge more Americans to kick the habit.
The ads, which ran for 12 weeks in spring and early summer, aimed to get 500,000 people to try to quit and 50,000 to kick the habit long-term.
"The initial results suggest the impact will be even greater than that," says Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which spearheaded the $54 million campaign.
The ads showed real Americans talking about how smoking caused their paralysis, lung removal and amputations.
Frieden says it's the first time the U.S. government has paid for anti-smoking ads, although some media ran them free.
The CDC doesn't have a tally yet on how many people actually tried to quit, but it says the ads generated 192,000 extra calls -- more than double the usual volume -- to its national toll-free quit line, 800-QUIT-NOW, and 417,000 new visitors to smokefree.gov, its website offering cessation tips. That's triple the site's previous traffic.
"We do plan to do another (campaign) next year," Frieden says, adding that he has no details yet on the ads or their timing. He says the amount the CDC spent this year is a pittance compared with the $10 billion the tobacco industry spends annually to market its products.
The nation's two largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, declined to comment on the ads. Both reported solid second-quarter 2012 earnings.
Frieden says the print, broadcast and online ads struck a chord: "What we heard from people is they wished they'd seen them years ago."
Christi Leigh Sims, 42, says she was shocked into action by the acd showing a woman whose throat cancer caused her to lose her teeth, hair and larynx, and resulted in a hole in her throat. So in late March, Sims quit -- cold turkey -- after about 20 years of smoking.
"I wanted to change my life now before it was too late," says Sims, a mother of two from Arlington, Texas. "I didn't want to look or live like that." The ad shows a woman getting dressed with a wig and false teeth.
"We made the danger accessible and realistic," says Eric Asche, who works for the anti-smoking group Legacy and who consulted with the CDC on the ads. "When you personalize a story, it's powerful."
Too powerful for some -- the ads "are shocking, disgusting and too provocative -- and they've crossed the line," wrote stay-at-home dad Joel Mathis in a Scripps Howard News Service column. "The non-smoking majority is being subjected to an assault on our senses."
Glenn Leshner, a University of Missouri researcher who has studied the effectiveness of anti-smoking ads in a lab setting, says they draw more attention when they feature either a health threat or disgusting images. Yet when they have both, he's found viewers start to withdraw.
Frieden, a physician who has treated many smokers, defends the ads.
"It's important that everyone understands the impact of smoking," he says.
He adds that most people don't realize that smoking causes more than lung cancer and heart disease.
Health care costs are $2,000 more each year for smokers -- about 20 percent of U.S. adults -- than for non-smokers, Frieden says, and smoking remains the leading cause of preventable deaths.
"This campaign pulled back the curtain," he says.