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Smoking and female emancipation: when will we learn?
  1. David Simpson

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    About a quarter of a century ago, a British tobacco control advocate visiting New York found himself on the receiving end of a withering look and a sharp put-down from an American feminist. His crime? He had recommended a new book called The Ladykillers, a pioneering work by Bobbie Jacobson, at that time deputy director of the British public health group Action on Smoking and Health. The listener objected to the word “lady” in the title.

    Jacobson was one of the first people to focus on the then unfashionable subject of women and smoking. Her excellent book highlighted not only the additional health concerns that women smokers face over those of men, but also the way women had been and continued to be specially targeted and exploited by tobacco companies. The explanation offered to the angry New Yorker that the title, borrowed from a classic British post-war comedy film, had been considered too well known and appropriate for the author and publisher to resist, was swept aside as irrelevant: men’s control of women, including designating some of them as ladies, was seen as a more important problem than their being encouraged to take up a habit that had been killing men for years.

    In fairness, a similar New York feminist today would probably be among the strongest opponents of Big Tobacco’s exploitation of women. The trouble is, though, that as in almost every aspect of tobacco control, history keeps repeating itself. Despite huge strides in organised resistance to tobacco, the worldwide expansion of knowledge and resources to fight it, and the communications explosion, the world at large is still aiding and abetting tobacco companies in their continued efforts to ensure that while men still smoke their products, equal numbers of women can be recruited, too.

    It is depressing when we read of rising female smoking rates, and of the inevitable rise in female rates of smoking induced disease that follows later. But more than depressing, it is outright frustrating when we see evidence that, in some quarters, nothing appears to have been learned. Despite the painful lessons the industrialised countries of the west have been taught over more than half a century, tobacco manufacturers have not had to adjust their methods in any major degree. When they want to get previously non-smoking women to take up the habit, all they need to do is to promote it as a sign of liberation, just as US manufacturers did so successfully in the 1930s and 1940s, showing women doing what had previously been men’s work, such as being air raid wardens.

    But why do imbecilic mass media organisations, in countries whose governments and citizens are well aware of the problems, have to do the tobacco companies’ dirty work for them? Last November, the French magazine Courrier International carried a feature on female emancipation in the Muslim world, highlighted on the front cover by a photograph of a chador-wearing Muslim woman with a newly-lit cigarette in her mouth. Another picture, printed alongside the actual article, showed a different Muslim young woman smoking, in a pose obviously chosen to show a new sense of freedom among the subjects of the piece. This is exactly the sort of message big tobacco companies want to project. And the sickening thing is, we can be almost sure that in another few decades, publications like this will be boasting world exclusives about the shocking rise in lung cancer in Muslim women, who previously had low rates of the disease.

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    Women have been, and continue to be, the target of aggressive marketing by the tobacco industry.