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The FDA’s Frightening Anti-Smoking Campaign for Teens Hits Them Where It Hurts

3 minute read

The last time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to use graphic images to deter smokers in 2012, a judge ruled its graphic labels–which included images of rotting lips, corpses, and diseased lungs–unconstitutional. Two years later, the FDA has revealed its latest move, announcing its first national anti-smoking campaign aimed at teens. At first look, the result is similarly dramatic, though slightly less frightening: One ad features a teen pulling out a tooth with a wrench to pay for a pack of cigarettes, while another simply focuses on a young woman with wrinkles.

Called “The Real Cost,” the campaign aims to decrease the number of teens between the ages 12 and 17 from becoming hooked on tobacco by emphasizing the bodily harm smoking can inflict–and tapping into teens’ concerns about their appearance. “The FDA has collaborated with some of the brightest and most creative minds to develop a multimedia initiative designed to make the target audience acutely aware of the risk from every cigarette by highlighting consequences that young people are really concerned about,” said Mitchell Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products said in a statement. The campaign also underscores the addictive quality of nicotine, since many young people presume they can quit whenever they want.

The ads, which will begin appearing nationwide on Feb. 11, will be seen in 200 different markets on TV, radio, print, and online. You can watch a preview here:

Before launch, the FDA conducted massive ad testing and found the ads to be memorable and engaging among their target audience. The agency plans to track the effectiveness of the campaign by monitoring 8,000 people between the ages of 11 and 16 for two years to see whether there are any changes in tobacco knowledge and attitudes. “As a regulatory agency, everything the FDA does is grounded in science,” Zeller said.

Tobacco use had a sharp drop among teens between 1997 and 2003, but began to slow in 2003 and came to almost a halt between 2009 to 2011, according to data released from the CDC in 2012. Health experts speculate that the reasons for the range from lower state dedication to the cause to teen’s growing interest in other products like small cigars. Emerging research shows that teens are also taking a liking to e-cigarettes, which don’t contain tobacco but still have nicotine.

The FDA’s latest initiative is part of their overall move to tighten their control over the tobacco industry. Every day, more than 3,200 young people under the age of 18 try their first cigarette, and more than 700 of them will become daily smokers. It is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the U.S., and responsible for 480,000 deaths every year.

Under the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act–which gives the FDA the power to regulate the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of tobacco products–tobacco companies are required to foot the $115 million for the awareness campaign. “The Real Cost” is the first of several campaigns the agency plans to roll out over the next few years, with subsequent efforts targeting specific audiences from rural teens to LGBT youth.

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