What Smoking Does to the Body

It seems the best way to reach smokers is to tell them they'll look ugly.

Smoking is declining in many countries, but the Cancer Society of Finland has a terrifying vision of the future for people who still light up. Within a few years, the organization claims, smokers will resemble fat, sexless, acne-covered zombies. 

Okay, perhaps not quite. But a new site launched by the nonprofit group offers an interactive look at the impact of smoking on nearly every part of the body.

The site covers tobacco's effects on everything from stress to sex, allowing users to move a slider to see the smoker's transformation.

Here, for example, is the face:


"The smoker's skin looks unhealthy, because the chemicals in cigarette smoke makes the skin's elastic fibers snap more easily."

The "weight gain":


"The smoker is often obese. She specifically invites abdominal obesity."

And there's a male smoker, as well:


"Smokers are more likely to get spots. Smokers' acne is also more difficult than usual."

Finns don't smoke as much as many of their neighbors, but the site aims to be cross-cultural, offering information in several languages. Even though some of its health claims might be exaggerated, the campaign is interesting because it follows a trend in which public health organizations attempt to scare smokers into quitting—and non-smokers into never starting—a tactic that has proven successful in studies analyzing different anti-smoking ad strategies.

Australian anti-smoking ad. 

An Australian meta-analysis from 2011 found that ads hammering the negative health impacts of smoking were most effective in getting people to kick the habit. 

In a 2006 study of 235 high school students, smoking rates declined over a 5-month period among those who were exposed to health-oriented anti-smoking ads. Ads focusing on the cosmetic drawbacks of smoking were more effective for boys, while those emphasizing the long-term health impacts worked best on girls. Likewise, a study published in 2003 in the journal Tobacco Control found that young people in the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain felt most impacted by anti-smoking ads with "visceral negative or personal testimonial executional characteristics."

"Visceral" is certainly one way to describe this.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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