Comment: Stoptober – the first government backed mass-quit attempt

By Amanda Sandford

The 1st October marks the start of a new mass media campaign to encourage England’s 8 million smokers to give up the deadly weed for a month.  It includes TV and radio advertising, online information and advice, posters, in-pharmacy literature, as well as a Stoptober app for smart phone users and a Facebook page.  Would-be ex-smokers can also tap into the advice of three celebrities who will focus on their respective areas of expertise covering health, wealth and how smoking affects your looks.      

So how does this campaign differ from previous anti-smoking campaigns and will it be effective?  What sets Stoptober apart from other campaigns is that it is the first time the Government has backed a mass quit attempt.  Aside from the annual No Smoking Day, this is the first time-specific campaign. It’s based on evidence that if smokers can quit for a 28-day stretch they are five times more likely to stay off cigarettes (compared to those who go back to smoking within a month of a quit attempt).  The campaign is therefore both ambitious in scale and challenging but potentially very rewarding for those who take part. 

Previous Government stop smoking campaigns have urged smokers to quit by appealing to subconscious concerns about the health or financial costs of smoking but without a specific time-frame in which to quit.  Some, such as the memorable but revolting "fatty cigarette" (showing a cigarette morphing into an artery oozing fat) were designed to shock people into action while others such as those focusing on the secondhand smoke impact on children aimed to persuade smokers to quit because of the harm inflicted on others.  

There is plentiful evidence to show that these mass media campaigns can be effective in changing behaviour.  However, the recurring finding is that to be really effective the campaigns need to be sustained.  A good example is the annual No Smoking Day which typically encourages a million or more people to quit for at least a day.  Given that most smokers make several attempts before they finally succeed, every quit attempt is worthwhile.  An evaluation of the No Smoking Day campaign over time has shown that the rate of quit attempts in March when the event is held is almost three times higher than at other times of the year.

So can Stoptover achieve the same or a better response?  Time will tell but the signs are looking positive.  As with No Smoking Day, the strength of Stoptober is that it is a mass participation event.  Smokers can draw inspiration and encouragement from others going through the same process and there is an abundance of support available in whatever format suits the individual.  Quitting tobacco is tough at any time but with appropriate support it can be a little easier. Witness the well-intentioned but badly executed attempts by individuals relying on will power alone to stop smoking in the New Year: quitting smoking remains one of the most popular New Year resolutions but also one that is frequently abandoned because the effort needed is not sustained by appropriate support. 

Stoptober is a novel stop smoking campaign with the potential of helping thousands of people to rid themselves of a deadly addiction.  Even if only a small fraction of those taking part eventually quit, it is likely to be cost effective since the burden on the NHS of treating people with diseases caused by smoking is at least £2.7 billion while factoring in broader social costs pushes the tally up to nearly £14bn a year. 

One thing is certain: because smoking is such a hard habit to break and the cause of years of ill-health and misery for millions of people, the Government must continue to fund mass media campaigns as well as implementing other measures such as standardised tobacco packaging if it is serious about reducing the harm from tobacco and ensuring a healthier population in the future. 

Amanda Sandford is the Research Manager for ASH – Action on Smoking and Health.  She manages the information department of ASH and is a spokesperson for the organisation in the press and broadcast media.