NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Resham Patel is a high school sophomore with a mission: to encourage her peers not to smoke; and, if they have started, to get them to quit. It's an increasingly uphill battle, considering that over the past decade smoking levels among adolescent girls have increased throughout the United States and accelerated overseas, experts say.
"People tell you, 'You will develop cancer, get emphysema and your teeth will turn yellow,' and yet younger and younger people are starting to smoke. It doesn't make any sense," Patel, a junior at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey, told a crowd gathered at a seminar here Wednesday about the increase in smoking among girls. The discussion was part of the three-day United Nations Special Session on Children.
As a foot soldier in the war against smoking, Patel has her work cut out for her. According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking among students in grades 9 through 12 students fell to about 35 percent in 1999, down from 36 percent in 1997 but level with the 1995 rate.
But while the rate of smoking for high school boys has fallen slightly, the rate among girls has increased. In 1999, 35 percent of high school girls smoked, compared with 27 percent in 1991.
The upward trend about female teens is of deep concern to Patricia Sosa, director of constituency relations for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, which co-sponsored Wednesday's discussion.
"Now they are smoking almost as much as boys and we don't feel we've been able to get a handle on this," Sosa said.
Hollywood, Ads Spurring Adolescent Smoking
Experts blame the persistent problem of adolescent smoking on tobacco companies, which continue to wage aggressive campaigns to sell their products despite measures designed to curb their reach. Although television ads are no longer allowed in the United States, the tobacco industry spends $8.4 billion a year on promotions including billboards and magazine advertisements that often equate cigarette smoking with independence and hint at cigarettes' ability to help women control their weight.
Mark Smith, director of public affairs at Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp., manufacturers of brands such as Misty and Capri that are aimed particularly at female smokers, said that his company does not market to anyone under the legal age and that the budget for these cigarettes is "small."
"We run some magazine advertising and a little direct marketing, but we don't market to people under 21," Smith said.
But anti-tobacco groups insist that these ads are reaching young girls. They say the problem is compounded by Hollywood, which reinforces the image of cigarettes as glamorous. Actors continue to smoke on the silver screen without ever facing the harmful consequences that often afflict smokers in real life, critics contend.
Cancer statistics, particularly those for women, are now one of the driving forces in a renewed campaign to stamp out smoking. In 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among women. The American Cancer Society reported an estimated 67,300 deaths from lung cancer among women and 40,200 from breast cancer in 2001.
"We haven't seen the same outcry about lung cancer as we have about breast cancer," Sosa said.
With states having received $246 billion in tobacco settlements, Sosa added that the anti-tobacco movement is now working on a two-tiered approach to fighting smoking among young people. In addition to efforts at the federal level, anti-smoking groups are pushing for states to use the settlement money to promote the message at state and local levels. Some states, such as California, Massachusetts, Vermont and Indiana have good track records, but the remaining states have failed to meet expectations.
Nearly 14 Percent of Young Teens Smoke
As groups such as Sosa's have battled the tobacco industry at home, cigarette companies have discovered wide-open markets overseas, particularly in developing countries that don't regulate the industry closely.
The tobacco industry's push to enter these markets is contributing to a renewed sense of urgency among anti-smoking advocates. The federal Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Canadian Public Health Association and the National Cancer Institute are conducting a worldwide project to determine smoking rates among youngsters, attitudes about tobacco and the influences that are shaping the trends.
Although the final Global Youth Tobacco Survey will not be released for several months, a federal disease center statistician Charles Warren said that the findings so far have been eye-opening. A survey of 13- to 15-year-olds in 70 countries indicates that nearly 14 percent smoke. No country reported zero smokers while investigators found that in some countries some 30 percent of children in this age group smoke.
Warren also noted the advertising war currently being waged for the hearts and minds of young people. According to the international survey, more than 78 percent of respondents had seen a pro-tobacco message on a billboard in the 30-day period before the survey. Eighty percent of those surveyed had seen an anti-smoking message in the media.
Neither Philip Morris USA nor RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. responded to requests for comment about their international media campaigns. Smith of Brown and Williamson declined to comment, saying that his company's international marketing was handled by British parent company, British American Tobacco.
Anti-tobacco advocates said they are particularly concerned about what they believe to be a rapid increase in smoking among girls in foreign countries.
Part of the rise, they say, has stemmed from the global women's movement. As women seek and gain greater independence, they are increasingly adopting behaviors that were once forbidden to them. Ten years ago, for instance, a Japanese woman would not admit she smoked. Today more and more women and girls in Japan are indulging, they say.
Advertisers in foreign countries are taking advantage of this new market. Joe Camel wears lipstick in advertisements in Eastern Europe, while British tobacco companies are sponsoring beauty pageants and sporting events in Africa.
"It used to be that people thought that men smoked and women didn't," Warren said. "What we're finding is that there's no difference among men and women."
Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance writer based in New York.
For more information:
Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids:
Teens Against Tobacco Use:
United Nations Special Session on Children
"More teens smoking in industrialized countries":