blue triangle background pattern

"Light" and Lethal Tobacco Marketing

By Christine Grillo

You’ve come a long way, baby. Or so says the cigarette industry.

A hundred years ago, a woman with a cigarette was considered a scandal. Today, though, in developed countries, women buy and smoke cigarettes at nearly the same rate as men. Fifty years of tobacco advertising saturated with images of sophistication and slender women had a great social impact.

In the developing world, however, the gap remains. In China, for example, only 4 percent of its 650 million women smoke, compared to 40 percent of men. But researchers Benjamin Apelberg and Elisabeth Donaldson, co-authors of a chapter in the recent WHO publication Gender, Women and the Tobacco Epidemic, say the gap is shrinking. “Given the industry’s history and the untapped market … why wouldn’t they target the people who haven’t reached for their product yet? China and India are the biggest markets, and women hardly smoke in China,” says Donaldson, research program manager at the Institute for Global Tobacco Control (IGTC).

The best way to predict smoking trends is to look at the data on youth, ages 15 to 18, say the researchers. In China, for example, where only 4 percent of women smoke, the rate of experimentation with smoking among girls ages 14–24 is 20 percent. “Youth provide a sense of what the future holds, and, worldwide, girls are catching up,” says Apelberg, PhD ’06, MHS ’00, an assistant scientist in Epidemiology.

The industry knows this, too. Products such as Camel No. 9 cigarettes (a play on the French perfumes Chanel Nos. 5 and 19) target young girls, says Donaldson, MHS ’08. These cigarettes are sold in a slim, pink case, marketed as “light and luscious,” and accompanied by free berry-flavored lip balm and cell phone jewelry.

One of the industry’s most successful strategies for marketing to women has been the “light” or “low-tar” cigarette, which purported to be safer, with less nicotine and fewer chemicals. Eventually, research exposed the “light” cigarette as a sham. In June, the FDA banned U.S. cigarette packs from declaring themselves “light” or “low-tar.” 

“One of the things that’s so disturbing,” says Frances Stillman, co-director of the IGTC, “is that in the developing world, it’s the wealthier women who are taking up smoking. The industry has known for a very long time that these women want to be sophisticated and Western.”

The best hope for protecting women from the dangers of tobacco, says Stillman, is to separate the images of smoking from those of sophistication, glamour, independence and individualism. Some countries mandate that tobacco packages contain graphic warnings, while other nations have banned everything but the name from the package. “For young women, the issue is movement toward making these products less desirable,” she says.” We have to get rid of the images of beautiful, successful women smoking.”