Genentech, American Cancer Society flash back to the '70s in PSA to destigmatize lung cancer, encourage screenings

(Genentech)

It was the era of bell-bottoms, eight-track tapes, Jell-O molds and the hustle—and a time when it seemed like everyone, everywhere smoked.

In a PSA aimed at encouraging ex-smokers to ask their doctor about annual screenings for lung cancer, drugmaker Genentech flashes back to the days when cigarettes and ashtrays were ubiquitous. Old home movie projector footage shows carefree 1970s scenes—people disco dancing, playing pinball, cruising in their cars, cooking meals and enjoying family dinners in front of the TV—all with a cigarette in hand or close by. 

“If that was you then,” a voice-over proclaims. “Get your lungs screened now.” 

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By transporting viewers "back to a time when smoking was simply part of everyday life," the PSA aims to encourage people to learn more about routine screenings “without attaching judgment to any prior smoking history,” Angie Wilson senior director for patient advocacy relations for Roche’s Genentech, said in an interview.

The video, released in 60- and 30-second versions, ends in the present day with an older woman in a hospital gown getting a low-dose CT scan. 

Wilson said the "pervasive cultural stigma" around lung cancer and its key risk factor is one of the biggest obstacles that keeps people from getting screened. 

"We understood from past research that there is an implicit bias toward lung cancer, but we learned more [in recent research] about societal stigma surrounding the disease and one of its key risk factors: smoking," she said. "This helped guide us to design a campaign, in part, aimed at destigmatizing lung cancer by recognizing smoking as a part of American culture at one point in time."

Genentech, which markets the $3 billion a year lung cancer immunotherapy Tecentriq and is Roche's oncology powerhouse, teamed with the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and other health organizations on the PSA and the larger “Screen Your Lungs” awareness campaign, which debuted in 2021 and is continuing this year.

It promotes new medical guidelines recommending yearly low-dose CT scans for people between 50 and 80 who smoke, have quit within the last 15 years, or have been a heavy smoker, which is defined as someone who smoked a pack a day for 20 years, or two packs a day for 10 years. 

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The unbranded effort is running on television and radio, in social media and on billboards and includes a website where people can take a quiz to see if they should get screened, as well as a tool to search for a testing center near them. 

It battles Merck's Keytruda in the lung cancer market, with both hoping to ramp up sales in a disease that is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the U.S., with nearly a quarter of a million cases expected this year alone, with long-term smoking the leading culprit for many of these cases.

While this latest campaign doesn’t mention Tecentriq, the drug, which was first approved in 2016, won a landmark FDA approval last October as an adjuvant therapy for non-small cell lung cancer, making it the first immunotherapy option for NSCLC early lung cancer patients right after tumor surgery.

The "Screen Your Lungs" campaign is one of several awareness efforts Genentech has rolled out in the last year to promote the importance of routine cancer screenings, which many people have postponed because of the pandemic.

Last March, it teamed with the American Cancer Society on its “Return to Screening” campaign to reverse that trend. And in December, it emphasized the benefits of screenings during its annual Cancer Screen Week campaign with the cancer society, Optum and Stand Up To Cancer.

A survey released as part of that campaign shows just why the efforts are needed. Only 36% of more than 2,000 adults surveyed in the U.S. thought regular cancer screenings were essential to their overall well-being, about half said they regularly put them off, and nearly 90% didn’t know what age they should start screening.

It also found Black and Hispanic adults were less likely to get screened than white adults, with 75% expressing concerns about the cost and 63% saying they didn't know how to start the process.

Based on those insights, Genentech and its partners included information on free or low-cost screening options and a cancer screening location finder on the Cancer Week website, Wilson said.