Falling into the tobacco trap

In the recent past, Big Tobacco has stepped up its advertising campaigns for a new target group — women. Set against a hot pink quit smokingtag which screams ‘Smoking is Ugly’, the World Health Organisation’s Global Tobacco Epidemic Report 2009 gives the alarming numbers — of the five million who die annually of tobacco abuse, 1.5 million are women.

New targets

But tobacco use among women, globally, is still comparatively low — only 9 per cent to the male 40 per cent. That explains the shift in focus with tobacco’s new gender-specific advertising. For an industry that needs to constantly seek replacement users, this is their biggest opportunity group. “With women”, the report goes on to state, “the industry simply has more room to expand.” But how can tobacco use possibly increase, when the industry has been banned from advertising its products and the government has clamped down on sponsorships of public events by tobacco companies?

Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, Executive Director of the Delhi-based grassroots organisation Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) that, among other things, works for tobacco control, explains how tobacco giants circumvent laws to promote their products. Something as harmless as shampoo could be a sneaky way to push a pack of cigarettes at you.

Why? Because they’re both from India’s biggest cigarette manufacturer ITC, or rather Indian Tobacco Company. Such surrogate advertising, where a product’s ad is indirectly used to promote another, is what tobacco companies resort to now. A lot of imagery that surrounds such advertising is directed at women, Bhavna adds. And once a brand ambassador like Deepika Padukone or Kareena Kapoor is raked in, the limelight is inevitable.

Elaborating on celebrity endorsements of tobacco-linked products, Bhavna talks of when Preity Zinta was the face for the Godfrey Phillips Bravery Awards. The awards were instituted by Godfrey Phillips India Ltd., India’s second largest cigarette brand. She argues, “What right does a product that kills numerous people every year have to award bravery?” The ads stopped only after VHAI wrote to the Bollywood star pointing out the irony.

Marketing tactics

But gender-specific advertising can also get a lot more direct. Cigarettes targeting women are usually described as ‘low tar’, ‘fresh’, ‘slim’, or ‘light’. The adjectives though, don’t make the tobacco inside any less harmful. Companies burn billions planning the right promotional strategies to make tobacco sell. Traffic to their websites is encouraged by selling tickets to shows and concerts online. Retail shops use the time-tested product giveaways — like bling phone pouches. Cigarettes become complimentary in pubs, home to the free-spirited girl of today. The ploy is to create a whole new feminine culture that’s centered on the product. So that the modern definition of women’s liberation includes a smoking cigarette held between slender, well-manicured fingers.

Rural reach

Chewed tobacco — not as elitist but equally deadly — is already a health issue with a majority of rural women, particularly in the east and northeast. Small sachets of gutka and paan masala are priced as low as one rupee; which keeps the addiction affordable. Many of these packs feature smiling, happy women. Sometimes, they are also prominently described as ‘kesar yukt’ (with added saffron!). But the statutory warnings are illegible.

When toiletry lines to pretty cell phone covers carry the brand imprints, it’s hard not to miss the emphasis. All this subtle marketing creates false goodwill for the central product — tobacco. So in our minds, smoking becomes a little less evil, which can be lethal, especially when lung cancer has already become the leading killer in women.

Gone up in smoke

Number of tobacco users globally is estimated at 1.2 billion

India is the third largest producer of tobacco in the world.

In India, tobacco use is responsible for half of all cancers in men and a quarter of all cancers in women.

India has the highest rates of oral cancer in the world.

Women who smoke are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack as non-smoking women.

The risk of developing lung cancer is 13 times higher for women smokers.

Smoking is a known cause of cancer of the lung, larynx, mouth, oral cavity, bladder, pancreas, uterus, cervix, kidney, stomach and oesophagus.

Deadly in pink

A recent report by the American tobacco-control organisation, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, describes the industry’s new marketing campaigns that project cigarette smoking as “….feminine and fashionable, rather than the harmful and deadly addiction it really is”.

October 2008: Philip Morris USA announced a makeover of its Virginia Slims brand into “purse packs”. Available in mauve and teal and half the size of regular cigarette packs, the sleek “purse packs” resemble packages of cosmetics and fit easily in small purses. Their “Superslims Lights” and “Superslims Ultra Lights” versions continue to (misleadingly) associate smoking with weight control.

January 2007: R.J. Reynolds launched the new version of its Camel cigarettes, Camel No. 9, packaged in shiny black boxes with hot pink and teal borders. The ads carried slogans including “Light and luscious” and “Now available in stiletto”, the latter for a thin version of the cigarette pitched to “the most fashion forward woman”. Promotional giveaways included flavoured lip balm, cell phone jewellery, tiny purses and wristbands, all in hot pink.

Different point of view

The epidemic of tobacco use manifests itself differently among women:

Women’s reasons for smoking often differ from those of men. The tobacco industry dupes many women into believing that smoking is a sign of liberation, and many women wrongly view smoking as a good way of keeping slim.

Women who smoke are more likely than those who do not to experience infertility and delays in conceiving. Maternal smoking during pregnancy increases the risks of premature delivery, stillbirth and newborn death and may cause a reduction in breast milk.

Smoking increases women’s risk for cancer of the cervix. There is a possible link between active smoking and premenopausal breast cancer.

Many tobacco control strategies ignore women who chew tobacco.

Passive smoking

Second-hand smoke is particularly worrisome for women.

In many countries, vastly more men smoke than women, and many of those countries fail to protect non-smokers adequately.

In many countries, women are powerless to protect themselves, and their children, from second-hand smoke.

In China — where the vast majority of adult smokers are men — more than half of women of reproductive age are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, which puts themselves and their unborn babies at risk.

Feminine marketing

Tobacco industry marketing endangers women

Advertisements falsely link tobacco use with female beauty, empowerment and health. In fact, addiction to tobacco enslaves and disfigures women.

Advertisements lure women with such misleading identifiers as “light” or “ow-tar”. More women than men smoke “light” cigarettes, often in the mistaken belief that “light” means “safer”.
Smoking reduces a woman’s fertility, causes intra-uterine growth retardation, and physical and mental disabilities in children.


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