Editor's note: Lawrence W. Green is professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the School of Medicine in the University of California at San Francisco. He was a former acting director of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
(CNN) -- The new anti-smoking campaign launched by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a smart move.
This is the largest nationwide advertising effort the CDC has ever launched to combat tobacco addiction. By spending $54 million and playing stark and graphic advertisements throughout the country, the government hopes to drive home the message that smoking is harmful and that there is help for those who want to quit.
Smoking and second-hand exposure to it is the leading cause of preventable death and chronic disease in the United States. Smoking-related illnesses, like cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, account for a very large proportion of costs on our health care system and economy.
Various communities, state and federal agencies have tried to educate the public about the adverse health effect of smoking by implementing smoke-free environmental policies, raising taxes on tobacco products, pushing out mass media campaigns and adding school programs. However, the tobacco industry easily outspends them and the combined campaign efforts of the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association.
With its ability to avoid regulatory restraints on its marketing strategies, the tobacco industry has considerable clout. And it would do everything it takes to beat back government policies that threaten its continued recruitment or retention of smokers.
In 2009, Congress passed a law that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to add warnings about smoking on cigarette packages, including a 1-800-QUIT-NOW hot line for smokers who want help with quitting.
When the Food and Drug Administration required that tobacco companies put stronger graphic warning labels on cigarette packages, the industry sued, citing infringement of the First Amendment. The court ruled in February that the government cannot require tobacco companies to use stronger labels.
Given the legal setback, the question is whether the government can still somehow fulfill the legislative mandate, which was already compromised by lobbying that forced, for example, the omission of menthol from the banned additive substances in tobacco. (As a result, the tobacco industry can continue exploiting new smokers, especially minority groups, with soothing menthol cigarettes that would otherwise be less appealing to smoke.)
With the congressional mandate in limbo, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's initiative comes at just the right time. By launching this campaign on television, in print and on the Internet, it is making up for what the FDA cannot do at this point. As states and communities are hard hit by declining budgets, fighting Big Tobacco demands not only commitment, but also creativity and ingenuity.
Perhaps one day, our courts will allow the government to add graphic warning messages about smoking on tobacco products. Other countries, such as Canada and Australia, have instituted those kinds of labels and have seen an effective reduction in smoking. America should take heed.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lawrence W. Green.