Third World women the next big-tobacco targets

ONCE UPON a time, there was a beautiful woman with long, blonde hair and even longer legs. She was cool and confident and glamorous, in the original sense of the word; “glamor” used to be a spell of illusion cast by a witch.

That was her line of work, too, in a way. This woman was photographed by a cigarette company nonchalantly holding its product, with the caption, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

And a lot of other women who longed for what she was supposed to symbolise – freedom, autonomy, success – bought the cigarette she was selling. And presumably some of them died for having confused a cancer stick with their dreams.

These days cigarette advertising in Australia is virtually banned, except at the point of sale. But the smoking rates of young women here now outstrip those of young men, and it is feared that worldwide women might eventually overtake men as the chief victims of smoking-related disease.

The tobacco industry has turned its heaviest guns on the young women of the Third World, which is far less regulated than Australia. They are being bombarded with messages linking smoking with Western-style equality, personal freedom and a fashionableness. The World Health Organisation fears the result will be a catastrophic epidemic of tobacco-related illness.

A recent WHO conference on women and smoking in Kobe, Japan, reported that of the world’s 1.1 billion smokers, 200 million are women. That proportion is set to triple in the next 25 years.

In the past decade tobacco companies have managed to double the proportion of smokers among young Japanese women aged 20-29, from 10 per cent in 1986 to 23 per cent this year. In the same period, the overall percentage of Japanese men who smoke fell from 60 per cent to 53 per cent.

WHO reports figures that must have tobacco companies slavering with anticipation: “In China, only 6per cent of women currently smoke, while in Vietnam the figure is just 4per cent. However, if China’s smoking rate for women doubled to near the same rate currently seen in Japan, there would be an additional 40 million smokers in that country alone.”

According to the World Bank, tobacco-induced disease and subsequent health care costs already result in a global net loss of $200billion a year – more than the GNPs of Malaysia and Singapore combined. WHO predicts that by 2025, 10 million people a year will die unnecessarily as a result of smoking, 70 per cent of them in developing countries.

This is a human catastrophe, not just a female one. But there is a growing realisation in international health circles that marketing manipulation of female psychology is a big part of the problem, and that health authorities must tackle the special vulnerabilities of women and girls. The “Kobe Declaration” passed at the conference urged WHO to fully integrate the special needs of women and girls into a proposed international treaty on tobacco control.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control will be the first legally binding international treaty aimed at curbing the spread of tobacco products. The aim is to implement it by 2003, and measures being considered include raising tobacco taxes sky-high and banning advertising, promotion and packaging of tobacco products worldwide.

It’s enough to give a cigarette company executive a heart attack. Some might call that karma.

Traditionally Asian women have been protected from the industry’s predations by cultural norms that perceived smoking as unfeminine or a sign of promiscuity. But westernised Asian women with more money for leisure and a belief that smoking is sophisticated and helps with weight control are smoking in increasing numbers.

Even in Australia, research shows significantly more girls than boys aged 14 to 17 are smokers; the you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby syndrome starts young.

It is cruel and paradoxical that women’s healthy goals for themselves – freedom and autonomy – are subverted by marketing into a desire for a product that kills and maims. The supposedly glamorous cigarette damages women in their very femaleness: it causes premature menopause, cancer of the cervix and vulva, infertility, miscarriage and stillbirth, and osteoporosis.

The most fitting archetypal association with it is not advertising’s nubile young woman but the hunched, barren, wrinkled crone.

The Kobe conference concluded that the single most effective way of combating the tobacco industry would be raising taxes on cigarettes.

But it seems important for the sake of women’s health that more is done to break the nexus between smoking and perceived glamor. The Kobe conference suggested that all smokes should be packaged in plain black-and-white wrappers covered in health information.

The Canadian Government might have a better idea. It is currently floating proposals to force cigarette packs to carry large and gruesome photos of cancerous lungs or bloodied brains that suffered terminal strokes.

It would be hard to look glamorous hoisting that out of your handbag.

First published in The Age.