Dr. Pamela Ling

(WOMENSENEWS)–An international report says the tobacco industry’s increased marketing towards women in developing nations, and especially Asia, is reversing women’s historically low smoking rates.

As smoking declines in many industrialized nations, such as Canada and the United States, the tobacco industry seems to be mining markets in less developed regions and particularly the women there, who present a largely untapped source of new tobacco users,according to Tobacco Control Country Profiles 2003, issued at the 12th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, an international tobacco-control conference held earlier this month in Helsinki, Finland.

The report notes “significantly increasing smoking rates among women” in Cambodia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Girls ages 15 and 16, it says, are now more likely than boys to smoke in Bulgaria, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

“The global prevalence of tobacco use is substantially higher in men (47 percent) than in women (12 percent), reflecting the traditionally low prevalence of female smoking in many developing countries,” the report finds. Noting that “cultural prohibitions against tobacco use by women can be eclipsed by social change and aggressive tobacco marketing,” the study says that the tobacco industry has targeted women with promotional strategies that “associate smoking with feminism, sophistication, weight control and Western-style independence.”

Selling Smoke with Images of Equality, Health and Fitness

Connecting these positive female images with smoking is just one way the tobacco companies are targeting women, according to a statement by the Atlanta -based American Cancer Society, which issued the report along with the World Health Organization and the International Union Against Cancer, both based in Geneva. Tobacco companies are also creating brands especially for women and sponsoring events with a special appeal to women, from popular music concerts to art shows, sports events and beauty pageants.

“It goes in waves around the world,” said Dr. Omar Shafey, an editor of the report, referring to the rise of smoking in women. “As women experience democratization, they face these pressures intentionally inflicted upon them by the tobacco industry. In Lebanon, Egypt, and many [Persian] Gulf countries, women face these pressures.”

In cultures where traditionally women have not smoked, Shafey said, women now see and hear Western movies, television and music that presents models of feminine freedom, of women satisfying their own desires, trying new experiences and prospering. Such attractive images are exploited by tobacco advertisements as well, he said.

In traditional societies, smoking is a “furtive addiction,” Shafey said. “To enter the man’s world that’s taboo is part of the attraction. As waves of modernization spread, women seek to take up the bad habits of men.”

The nonprofit Women’s Health Project in Johannesburg, South Africa, directs visitors to its Web site to consider “the billboard advertisement for Winston cigarettes, which could be seen on nearly every Johannesburg highway.” The site describes how the ad features “a young blonde woman sitting on a park bench, with a lit cigarette in her hand and the message: ‘Do I look like I would cook you breakfast?'” The site points out how this ad and others “are equating women’s liberation and freedom with lighting a cigarette, a potentially damaging image.”

Sales in Developing World Make Up for Declines Elsewhere

“Tobacco companies need to recruit new smokers to replace older smokers who die or quit,” said Dr. Pamela Ling, a University of California San Francisco researcher of global tobacco marketing, responding by e-mail from the Helsinki conference. (Three-quarters of the world’s tobacco is now consumed in low-income nations, according to a 2001 World Health Organization report.) “Just as they aim to recruit youth to smoke, in developing countries where women do not traditionally smoke, they can be seen as another source of new smokers. For this reason, young women in particular are a desirable target. Rock stars like Jewel and Alanis Morissette–who would not promote tobacco in the
U.S.A.–allow their image to sell cigarettes in sponsored concerts overseas.”

She added that “a lot of the aggressive marketing targeting women is being done by transnational tobacco companies based in the U.S.A. or in the U.K. For example, Philip Morris International markets Virginia Slims all over the world.”

Marc Fritsch, the international spokesman of Philip Morris, the world’s largest seller of tobacco products, told Women’s eNews that the company adheres to a marketing code, available at its Web site, which prohibits such practices as offering free cigarette samples, sales of single cigarettes, or billboard ads near schools, even when local laws permit such practices.

“We conduct our marketing in the same manner everywhere,” Fritsch said. “Marketing segmentation and product positioning are acceptable practices as long as they are done in a responsible and dignified manner. There isn’t something where we specifically target women. We just have a very diverse group of consumers.” As to the company’s Virginia Slims brand, Fritsch said, “There’s no doubt Virginia Slims is enjoyed by more female than male consumers, but it’s not that we target by gender.”

Smoking Going Up Among Young Asian Women

In economically developing countries of Asia, the 2003 report notes “a disturbing trend of increasing consumption by young women is emerging.” Developing regions in Asia, home to one-third of the world’s people, present an especially attractive market to the tobacco industry: a growing population of women who lag men in smoking rates but have increasing personal income and are strongly attracted to Western images of feminine empowerment and independence.

“Big tobacco transnationals, such as BAT [British American Tobacco], Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco, are targeting Asian women with their advertising,” said Malaysian tobacco-control advocate Mary Assunta in a telephone interview from the Helsinki conference. “Women are used in direct promotions to sell cigarettes and there are also parties, disco parties, organized where women are selling and promoting tobacco.”Camel store

Assunta’s group, the Consumers Association of Penang, pushed for a law making such indirect advertising and sponsorships illegal in Malaysia, she said, and looks forward to it becoming effective by the end of 2003. However, she said, that law will not stop tobacco companies selling their logo-marked clothing in stores, as at the Camel clothing stores operating in Malaysia and Thailand. Neither will it help other countries in the region.

“Quite aggressive advertisements” can be found in the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia and Japan, she added.

International public health activists have put their hopes of reducing tobacco addiction in being able to persuade enough countries to join the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the first global public-health treaty that restricts tobacco ads, controls smuggling and aids farmers who grow tobacco to change to other crops. The treaty will be enforced by each country ratifying it, not by any international body.

The United States has not yet signed the treaty. The president’s signature and Senate ratification are required.

Shafey said that the Bush administration had said it was opposed to treaty on the grounds that it restricted free speech in its advertising bans. However, President George W. Bush has now promised to sign it. Shafey added that the American Cancer Society will continue to promote ratification by the Senate.

Suzanne Batchelor has written on health and medicine for “Medscape,” “CBS Healthwatch,” the Texas Medical Association’s “Healthline Texas,” and for the national science series “Earth and Sky.”

For more information:

National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids–
Tobacco Ad Gallery:

Tobacco Control Country Profiles 2003:

International Network of Women Against Tobacco: