Becky Herner has painfully experienced how difficult it can be to quit smoking.

“At times, I thought cigarettes were my only friend,” Herner told Healthline, “but they weren’t my friend. They were trying to kill me.”

Those friendly tobacco-laden products have done a pretty good job in that regard.

Herner has end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) from her three and a half decades of smoking.

The 55-year-old former attorney from Ohio is one of five ex-smokers with serious ailments who are featured in this year’s annual “Tips from Former Smokers” ad campaign sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The ads started running on television, radio, newspaper, websites and other places on Monday. They’ll appear for the next five months.

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Targeting Adults Who Smoke

There are a number of campaigns that try to prevent teens and other young people from starting to smoke.

The CDC anti-smoking ads are designed for adults who already smoke.

Diane Beistle, chief of the health communication branch at the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, said they have discovered that testimonials from former smokers are the best way to get through to people who still smoke. 

“Smokers told us they'd prefer to hear about living with the consequences of smoking than dying from it,” Beistle told Healthline. “Smokers want to hear from those who did smoke.”

Smoking is a health issue the CDC feels is of upmost importance. Cigarettes kill more than 480,000 people in the United States each year. The CDC lists smoking as the leading preventable cause of death in the country.

It also costs the U.S. economy an estimated $300 billion a year. About $170 billion is in direct medical costs with the remaining amount in loss of productivity.

The annual anti-smoking campaign, which started in 2012, appears to be successful in trying to stem the tide. CDC officials say 62 percent more people called the national quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW in 2015 when the ads were posted.

“They create a high level of awareness,” Beistle said.

This year, the ads are also tackling e-cigarettes. CDC officials say the electronic devices can give a false sense to people that they can quit cigarettes by using them. Some smokers use both e-cigs and regular cigarettes, feeling it’s healthier because they have cut down on the tobacco-filled products. CDC officials say that is simply not true.

“Smokers must quit smoking completely, to fully protect their health — even a few cigarettes a day are dangerous,” the CDC said in a statement.

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Featuring Former Smokers

Each year, the ads feature former smokers facing serious health consequences.

One of the original people featured was Terrie Hall, a former cheerleader who started smoking in high school. The habit gave her oral and throat cancer. Her surgeries scarred her face and ravaged her voice.

Hall did not hide the damage the cancer did to her body. She was such an inspiration that people stopped her in the grocery store to thank her for helping them quit. They also mourned her passing when she died in 2013 at the age of 53.

This year the campaign features a Texas military veteran who started smoking at 8 and had a heart attack at 35.

There is also a 57-year-old grandmother of three who lost teeth and faced depression as well as a California business owner who started smoking at 14 and was diagnosed with cancer at age 44.

In addition, a 36-year-old Tennessee woman talks about how she tried to stop smoking using e-cigarettes and failed. She finally quit after experiencing a collapsed lung.

Read More: The Smoking and COPD Connection »

Becky Tells Her Story

And then there’s Becky Herner, the former attorney from Ohio.

She started smoking when she was 16. Like many younger people, she felt bullet-proof.

“I said that’s not going to happen to me,” Herner recalled. “We trick ourselves into thinking it won’t be me.”

Over the years, she tried to quit but learned tobacco has an incredible pull.

“It’s an addiction just like any other,” Herner said. “The urges to have a cigarette are so powerful.”

When Herner was 45, she had two children and her dream job of being a child-advocate attorney. Then, she was diagnosed with COPD.

She suffered a collapsed lung and had surgery. She had to quit her job. She finally stopped smoking at age 52, but the damage was done.

Herner’s lung functionality has dropped to 18.5 percent and she carts an oxygen tank around wherever she goes.

She is in pulmonary rehab and exercises as much as she can, hoping to stay alive long enough to receive a lung transplant.

Herner agreed to put her face and story on the national ad campaign because she wants smokers to see what harm their habit can do to them.

“If people don’t see it, then they’ll be like me, and not really know,” she said.

Herner also hopes to prevent young people from lighting up for that first time.

“If they don’t pick up that first cigarette, then they don’t have to worry about all this,” she said.

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