The more magazine ads smokers see for the nicotine patch and other quit-smoking aids, the more likely they are to try to quit smoking and be successful — even without buying the products, finds a new Cornell study.

“We think that the reason may be that important ‘spillover effects’ from advertising may be occurring, which has important implications for advertising for a wide range of health products,” said Alan Mathios, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and a co-author of the study

Mathios also thinks this applies to pharmaceutical ads for other products like statins, maybe even dopamine agonists (eg, Requip) that prevent twitchy legs. OK, he didn’t include the latter, but he did say some pretty outlandish things.

Take this, for example: “Ironically,” says Mathios, “ads for prescription smoking-cessation products are more heavily regulated than cigarette ads because of mandatory risk disclosures.”

Whoa! I’ve never heard of the FDA requiring, for example, that DEATH be mentioned as a side effect of smoking-cessation products. Death, however, IS prominently mentioned in Surgeon General warnings appended to cigarette ads.

Note: the one time that a pharmaceutical DTC ad mentioned death as a side effect — the 150-second Celebrex TV ad — all the pundits laughed and wondered what the hell Pfizer was thinking (see, for example, “Celebrex Ad: Let’s Dive Deeper“).

Not only that, in a radio interview (“On the Media,” a NPR show aired on New York Public Radio), Mathios stated that “if the pharmaceutical industry spent an extra 10% per year in anti-smoking product advertising in magazines, that would cause an additional 80,000 people to quit smoking.”

Of course, that additional spending may not help sales of the products and that is why Mathios seriously suggested that the government give pharmaceutical companies money to do more DTC advertising!

“Given the public service these advertisements are providing,” suggested Brooke Gladstone, the radio hostess, “maybe the government should be subsidizing the ads, especially if they work against, in some cases, the actual profitability of the company.” Nice setup, Ms. Gladstone!

“That’s actually a reasonable conclusion to make,” said Mathios [BROOKE LAUGHS]. “If many people are actually quitting without the use of these products, the ads are generating benefits to society that’s not being incorporated into [the advertiser’s] profit. And so in some sense, these ads are doing exactly what the public health authorities try to do in their advertising, in their big campaigns to get people to quit.”

[You can read the transcript here.]

This kind of thinking takes my breath away!

Here we have a study surely to be embraced by the pharma industry in support of its long-standing argument that DTC performs a public service. They will definitely cite the study to make the case that DTC advertising should not be hobbled in any way by the government — not even by imposing a temporary, product-selective moratorium.

In fact, I imagine pharma ad execs testifying before Congress in much the same vein as Nick Naylor did in the movie “Thank You for Smoking.” I don’t have the exact quote, but you know what I mean — something about how smoking actually has a beneficial effect on some people and how Vermont cheese can cause high cholesterol and kill people. “That’s ludicrous,” said Senator Ortolan Finistirre, “The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!”

P.S. Despite repeated email requests to Dr. Mathios, he was not able to get me a review copy of the published study. Perhaps someone out there who has access to the Journal of Political Economy, which published the study, can send me a copy. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen!