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Poster protest

May 31, 2010

The tobacco industry is trying to convert more women to smoking, says the World Health Organization. On this year's World No Tobacco Day, the group has created a counter-campaign to combat the trend.

German teenage girls smoking
Young and female: a key target group for tobacco firmsImage: AP

The World Health Organization (WHO) has put cigarette advertising aimed at women at the center of its annual World No Tobacco Day. The organization says the tobacco industry is unscrupulous in its attempts to market cigarettes to young women in general, especially in the developing world.

Douglas Bettcher, the director of the WHO's tobacco free initiative, told Deutsche Welle that the prevalence of deadly diseases among smokers, such as cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, means the tobacco industry is "always looking for new populations, such as young women, to light up and support their profit motives."

And the group's Web site claims that "women are the main targets of the tobacco industry's efforts to win new consumers."

Woman in Jakarta, smoking
Jakarta, Indonesia was blasted for its laissez-faire smoking rulesImage: picture alliance / dpa

There is certainly more room for growth in the market for female smokers, statistics show. Across the world, just 9 percent of women and 40 percent of men currently smoke. Meanwhile, a WHO study of 151 countries shows 7 percent of adolescent girls smoke, compared with 12 percent of adolescent boys.

Female smokers are catching up to male smokers, according to statistics. In several countries - including, in Europe, Bulgaria, Croatia, and the Czech Republic - the number of female tobacco users outweighs the male users, the WHO study showed.

Counter-campaign trades beauty for illness

The trend is worrisome, WHO says. Its new report entitled "Women and health: today's evidence, tomorrow's agenda," cites evidence that tobacco advertising increasingly targets girls. Thus for this year's World No Tobacco Day, the health agency decided to highlight the tobacco industry's tactics of associating tobacco use with beauty and freedom in its advertising.

One part of this year's campaign was creating a series of hard-hitting posters that show attractive, but extremely ill, smokers, such as a model with mouth cancer or a tracheotomy tube.

"This campaign calls attention to the tobacco industry's attempts to market its deadly products by associating tobacco use with beauty and liberation," WHO Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health, Ala Alwan, said.

Cigarette marketing has become especially unscrupulous in parts of Africa and Asia, said Adepju Olukoya, who works on gender and health issues for WHO.

Romy Schneider with a cigarette in her mouth
Smoking women were often considered sophisticatedImage: AP

"The industry has studied what makes women tick in both developed and developing countries. In many developing countries especially, the young people want to be part of the global advance of fashion, in music, in being 'with it'," she told Deutsche Welle.

"So the tobacco industry uses this effectively by promoting sports events and concert events that draw young people - both male and female," she added.

Sobering statistics

Challenging the millions of dollars spent on cigarette marketing won't be easy, but the WHO is trying. Even though it is unlikely that its posters will be seen by as many young women as see the cigarette advertisements, the organization hopes they will deter at least some women from lighting up.

"The World No Tobacco Day (poster) campaign seeks to turn the tables on the tobacco industry, showing tobacco use in its true light," WHO's Bettcher said. "No one should be fooled... Tobacco is not stylish. It is deadly and addictive."

Tobacco use kills more than five million people every year, about 1.5 million of whom are women, WHO says. About half of long-term smokers die from tobacco related illness, the group says.

In general, statistics show women are more vulnerable to tobacco-related illnesses, according to Germany's Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA). The group says second-hand smoke is a particular threat to women, especially pregnant women and their babies.

According to BZgA, 26 percent of German women and 34 percent of German men are smokers.

Long history of women and tobacco

The WHO's poster campaign is just the latest salvo in a long fight between health agencies and the tobacco industry over the targeting of women and girls.

In the 1920s, Lucky Strike cigarettes first linked smoking to weight control by urging women to "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." In the 1960s, Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims, the first cigarette brand created specifically for women and targeted to that consumer group.

And in the 1970s, tobacco companies targeted women with ads implying that "light" and "low tar" cigarettes were safer for consumption - despite knowing this was not the case, the US anti-smoking advocacy group Tobacco Free Kids says.

Author: Jennifer Abrahmson
Editor: Rob Turner