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The Politics of Women's Health

Women and Smoking

Consider the following:1

  • Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, causing more than 400,000 deaths each year Ė more deaths than caused by AIDS, alcohol, drug abuse, car crashes, murders, suicides, and fires combined.

  • Nearly one in four people in the United States currently smoke. Half of all long-term smokers die of smoking-caused diseases.

  • Since 1987, lung cancer has been the leading cancer killer among women.

  • Heart disease is the overall leading cause of death among women, and smoking accounts for one of every five deaths from heart disease.

  • Women suffer gender-specific risks from tobacco, including harm to their reproductive health and complications during pregnancy.

  • From 1991 to 1999, smoking among high school girls increased by nearly 30 percent (from 27 to 34.9 percent).

The statistics on women and smoking are grim, and understanding the myriad of reasons why women and girls smoke and crafting strategies that will help them avoid or quit remain central challenges to all who are concerned with the health and well-being of girls and women.

The websites listed below have comprehensive information on many different aspects of women and smoking, from data on use and health research to articles exploring the politics of tobacco prevention.

One of the most extensive sites is the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, whose goal is to stop the tobacco industry from targeting and eventually addicting kids. Their website is beautifully done and features incisive reports about the tobacco industry, the efficacy of stop smoking programs, the politics of tobacco farming, and the various legislative efforts to hold the tobacco companies accountable for the damage their product causes. They document the tobacco industry's long history of creating ads aimed specifically at women, as well as African Americans. "The tobacco industry's targeting of women and girls dates back to the 1920s and intensified in the late 1960s with the introduction of women-specific brands, including Philip Morris' Virginia Slims and its seductive 'You've Come A Long Way, Baby' advertising campaign. These ads cynically equated smoking with independence, sophistication and beauty and preyed on the unique social pressures that women and girls face. In the 1970s, women were targeted with advertising for so-called 'low tar' and 'light' brands, with implied claims of reduced risk that the tobacco companies knew to be false."

The targeting of women isn't limited to the US; tobacco companies have expanded their reach to international markets. Global Partnerships for Tobacco Control is an organization committed to supporting and strengthening global grassroots opposition to this expansion. In a review of one of their reports, Addicted to Profit: Big Tobacco's Expanding Global Reach, U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi says, "Under fire in the United States for marketing a product which kills half of its regular users, Big Tobacco has been expanding its operations abroad where the opportunities for profit are much greater and its histories of lies and deceit not quite so well known. Addicted to Profit is a carefully documented exposť of this aggressive expansion. It provides the clearest argument to date why national tobacco legislation must include provisions to prevent these companies from spreading death and disease in the rest of the world."

Another online article, The New Face of Tobacco by Noy Thrupkaew, documents the specific tactics used by the tobacco industry to target women overseas and women of color in the U.S. Thrupkaew examines ads that tie empowerment, individuality, and rebellion to smoking. "I want to dance to my own music without others' direction," says a ballerina in a Japanese Virginia Slims ad. And to appeal to women in countries where smoking has traditionally been unacceptable for women, other ads ad, "Iím going the right way -- keeping the rule of the society, but at the same time I am honest with my own feeling. So I donít care if I behave against the so-called 'rulesí as long as I really want to."

To find out more about the risks of smoking, the politics of tobacco, and the deceptions of tobacco advertising, check out the following websites:

To read more about the statistics on women and smoking, click here. To read more about how advertising targets women and girls, see Our Health Versus Their Profits: The Lure of Smoking Continues for Girls.


1 The statistics gathered below come from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Smoking and Tobacco Use and Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General - 2001.

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