The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a new ally in its graphic anti-smoking campaign.
Even though the CDC's “Tips from Former Smokers” ads are aimed at adults, Felicita Soto of Orlando says she hopes kids will get the message. She started smoking when she was in the sixth grade.
The CDC polled thousands of smokers and non-smokers before and after it rolled out the campaign, and found that as of last September, more than 100,000 smokers had quit right after the first ads ran in the spring of 2012.
It’s best known face belonged to a woman from North Carolina named Terrie Hall, who died Sept. 16, 2013.
“It breaks my heart to see teenagers smoking, because I started smoking when I was a teenager,” Hall said in her last days, through a mechanical voice box.
In one of her many public service announcements for the CDC, it shows a lovely brown-haired teenager from the 1970s, with a Farah Fawcett hairdo. That stood in stark contrast to the woman who had lost her teeth, her hair, and even her own voice. Smoking for her lead to oral cancer and cancer of the larynx.
For Soto, smoking stared at age 12. Her mom found out Soto was smoking, so the girl asked her mother, who also smoked, if it was okay.
“She told me yes, as long as I could afford it. I was 12 and I was earning babysitting money,” Soto said. “I guess I wanted to act like a grownup. Everyone was smoking around me...I thought it was something like normal, let's put it that way.”
Soto got involved in the "Tips from Former Smokers" campaign after seeing a CDC recruiting poster at work. Now, she's hoping to persuade kids not to smoke.
“I didn't get the chance to see commercials like this,” Soto said.
She said three people she knows have already quit because of her campaign, even her older sister.
“She couldn't come to my house without running outside every 10 minutes to have a cigarette. And she visited me two days ago and she didn't go out once. I was so happy for her,” Soto said.
In her video, Soto tells her story about becoming a smoker and then quitting. To punctuate the words in her story, she takes out her false teeth. And hangs her head.
After decades of smoking, Soto said she started waking up to find blood on her pillowcase. She finally went to the dentist to get a shaky tooth pulled.
“That was when he gave me the bad news that I was going to start losing them all very quickly, because the gum disease that I had,” Soto said. “The cigarette was eating my gums, it was eating the bones of my teeth and it was something that I never realized. Um, I lost my teeth very young and I'm still going through the pain, the consequences.”
The CDC says 18 percent of Americans smoke cigarettes, and the Florida chapter of the American Lung Association says 18 percent of adults in Florida smoke
Soto, 54, is now a denture wearer, and she no longer enjoys dining out with her family. She said it's embarrassing to go to restaurants with her family. If she does, she'll take the chair facing the wall, which brings her down and makes her family sad, too, she said.
And forget about eating the foods she used to love to snack on, like peanuts and pistachios, Soto said. She worries the many years of cigarette smoking may cause more unseen damage to her face.
“My nose, my cheekbones feel, once in a while… it feels like somebody punched me in the face. And I don't know if it goes with that gum disease ...because I can't afford to go back right now,” Soto said.
According to the CDC, smoking is the country's leading preventable cause of sickness and death.