Anti-Smoking Ads Shock Viewers in NYC

The millions of people who have seen Ronaldo Martinez on TV don't know his name, but they remember his face and his voice.

"I was 39 when I got throat cancer from smoking cigarettes," Martinez says in one commercial. "I almost died. Now there is a permanent hole in my throat."

Martinez is shown in the shower with a white bib at his neck. He lifts it to reveal the gaping hole in his throat. He holds an electronic device up to his neck to speak in a weak, robotic monotone.

In another ad, Martinez walks along a pool deck watching children at play.

"I never thought that anything could keep me from the water," he says. "Now I have to breathe through a hole in my throat. If water gets inside of me, it will drown me."

Some Turn Away, but Message Gets Through

The ads are part of an anti-smoking campaign that first aired in Massachusetts six years ago and is now airing in New York City.

"I'm sure in some cases, people have to look away," said Paula Veale of the Ad Council, a nonprofit organization that makes public service commercials.

Ad experts say turning away is not a bad thing; turning off is another story. The New York City Health Department says it is clear people are not doing that.

The Health Department says it's received 15,000 calls about quitting smoking since the campaign began in January, compared to 5,000 calls during the same period last year.

"Clearly 15,000 calls to a toll-free hot line, triple the amount of what it was before this ad, showing that is breaking through," Veale said.

Martinez, 53, now lives in Puerto Rico with his family. He says he is grateful his story is having such an impact.

"It's very hard to quit smoking once you start," he said. "Just don't start."

Experts have seen other results using the stories of real people.

Two decades ago, the Ad Council began its Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk campaign, using home videos from families ruined by drunken drivers.

Advocates say the number of Americans who said they tried to stop someone from driving drunk grew dramatically after the ads had aired.

As for Martinez, his life goes on as a survivor, but as he points out in the ads, it has forever changed.

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