Allison Stein

(WOMENSENEWS)–The pay gap between women and men is an appalling 23 percent.

There are still only eight women heading Fortune 500 companies and women make up only 13 percent of Congress.

But there is one gender gap that is rapidly closing. Women are smoking almost as much as men and dying of smoking-related illnesses in numbers nearly equal to men.

Today, 21 percent of adult women in the United States smoke, versus 26 percent of men. That’s just 5 percentage points. In 1955–when 24 percent of women and 53 percent of men smoked–the gap was 29 percentage points.

This regrettable form of equality–which has helped make lung cancer the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women–did not happen by chance.

The good news is that there is now a bill pending in Congress that could go a long way at reining in the efforts to market cigarettes to female teens.

At the start of the 20th century, female smokers were rare. Yet, quite early on, women were viewed as a rich untapped market.

In 1928, George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, Durham, N.C., said that persuading women to smoke “will be like opening a new gold mine in our front yard.”

“Women’s cigarettes” took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s, fueled by marketing efforts, most famously Virginia Slims’ “You’ve come a long way, baby” slogan.

And indeed we have come a long way; at least in parity in voluntarily harming ourselves. Smoking among high school senior girls more than doubled from approximately 17 percent in 1958 to 39 percent in 1977.

Younger Women’s Issue

Smoking is not just a women’s health issue. It is a younger women’s health issue. Smoking is a habit that often starts young; usually before age 16.

And even though younger men smoke at slightly higher rates than younger women, the 2001 Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General concludes that young women ages 18 to 24 are more likely than men to report that they experience symptoms of nicotine dependence.

Now, Big Tobacco is using a new ruse to stoke this dependence. They are making cigarettes with flavors that are especially tempting to young women.

Fruity lip balms, fruity chewing gum, fruity lotions, fruity stamps, and even fruity pens have proven appeal with this market sector. Now, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp., Louisville, Ky., brings us Caribbean Chill and Midnight Berry cigarettes.

In its controversial release of these cigarettes–called Smooth Fusions–Brown and Williamson Tobacco is following R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which since 1999 has been selling exotic blends of Camels with names such as Crema, Dark Mint, Izmir Stinger (a mix of brandy flavor and Creme de menthe).

Fruit-Flavoring for Nicotine

The packs of these cigarettes are too big for a man’s shirt pocket, but they easily fit into a woman’s purse or clutch. With their ornate package designs and vivid, girly colors, these flavored cigarettes are clearly aimed at young women.

RJR, Winston-Salem, N.C., also creates flavored cigarettes that tie in with events or times of the year that that are especially attractive to younger women. For example, in December 2003, RJR ran this ad line: “RJR has invited you to ‘uncork the excitement’ and celebrate New Years Eve 2003 with Camel Midnight Madness.”

Tobacco spokespeople argue that the higher price of Smooth Fusions will keep them out of younger hands (they are 65 cents to one dollar more per pack than regular cigarettes).

But the “hard to get quality” of the cigarettes could give Smooth Fusions the fashionable and status-conscious edge, making them the Prada and Gucci of all cigarettes.


We confess to being occasional social smokers, and we don’t want to become addicted. As we struggle to keep from smoking more often, these temptations infuriate us.

As younger women, haven’t we dealt with enough?

Thanks to the magazine, cosmetic, and dieting industries, we are already the targets of hundreds of ad campaigns designed to make us completely obsessed about all the possible deficiencies in our appearance. Will we allow ourselves to be seduced by the tobacco industry, the deadliest of them all?

In a decade when such marketing campaigns encourage thousands of us to starve ourselves, fake-tan ourselves and undergo dangerous plastic surgeries, can we not be spared from at least one more dangerous habit?

Something Can Be Done

There is something we can do.

In several states, public health departments are calling on tobacco companies to stop peddling the flavored brands of cigarettes, arguing that the products represent a blatant attempt to lure teen-age smokers and therefore violate the 1998 legal agreement that prohibited marketing cigarettes to youth.

You should demand that the health department in your state does the same.

On a national level, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH) have introduced legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate any new nicotine product.

That bill requires the FDA to ban flavor additives to cigarettes such as “an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is not a characteristic flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke.”

But this bill is currently being debated in Congress and efforts to delete FDA authority in this area are underway.

So, send your members of Congress an e-mail. Or better yet, visit their offices and urge them to support this critical piece of legislation.

Alison Stein is program assistant at the National Council of Women’s Organizations in Washington, D.C., and founder of NCWO’s National Younger Women’s Task Force. She has worked on women’s issues in both Tanzania and Ghana.

Nicole Hudak wrote this while she was the research associate at the National Research Center for Women and Families in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

National Research Center for Women and Families–
Smoking is a Woman’s Issue:

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