Emory Report

July 26, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 36


Women's smoking connected to rise in cancer-related illness, death

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 22 million American women and 1.5 million adolescent girls smoke cigarettes. The use of tobacco has been shown to increase the risk of cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, and reproductive disorders among women. More than 140,000 of them die each year from smoking-related illnesses--the most preventable cause of premature death in this country, according to the CDC. The earlier a young woman begins to use tobacco, the more heavily she is likely to smoke as an adult.

Although the number of cardiovascular deaths is declining, smoking-related cancer deaths continue to rise. Since 1987 more women have died from lung cancer each year than breast cancer, the major cause of cancer death in women for more than 40 years. Some studies suggest that smoking cigarettes dramatically increases the risk of heart disease among premenopausal women who are also taking birth control pills. One stated that the risk for coronary artery disease--the leading cause of death in women over age 50--increases by 30 to 40 percent.

Increasingly, the tobacco industry has aimed its products and advertising at women. Given the fact that tobacco kills off a quarter of its consumers, these companies are resorting more than ever to expanding and creating new markets. Women are key target groups in both developed and developing nations.

Since the 1920s, when women first began to be targeted as cigarette buyers, various attractive images and themes have been used to encourage smoking, promote its social acceptability and highlight the "desirable" attributes of particular brands of cigarettes. Smoking was-and is-advertised as glamorous, sophisticated, fun, romantic, sexually attractive, healthy, sporty, sociable, relaxing, calming, liberated and rebellious behavior, and also as a weight loss aid.

Cigarette manufacturers and advertisers argue that these messages and imagery merely encourage brand switching or sustain brand loyalty among those who already smoke. However, there is increasing research evidence that such advertisements serve to encourage and reinforce smoking among the young.

Women also are targeted through a variety of special offers including free silk stockings or cosmetics, contests and clothing carrying the brand logo. Another popular method is the sponsorship of women's sports or events such as fashion shows.

In many countries, particularly where tobacco advertising is banned from television, the most popular medium for targeting women is magazines. One study showed that eight of the 20 magazines receiving the most cigarette advertising in the United States are women's magazines. These magazines have an enormous number of readers of all ages and backgrounds and can lend a social acceptability or stylish image to smoking. Furthermore, the presence of tobacco ads in their pages may dilute the impact of articles on tobacco and health.

Women's magazines around the world could take the lead in protecting and improving the health of their readers by:

  • refusing to accept cigarette advertisements.
  • writing regularly on the health hazards of smoking, how to quit and nonsmokers' rights.
  • making a special effort in a teen and youth magazines to increase awareness of the special risks that smoking poses to young women, especially those who take birth control pills or smoke while pregnant.
  • avoiding the use of glamorous photos of people, including fashion models, smoking.

Smoking prevention policies illustrate the tension between economic interests, personal liberties and health as a social value. Tobacco is a major industry in some states, providing both employment and tax revenues. The federal government supports national objectives to reduce smoking while at the same time providing the tobacco industry with subsidies. The issues surrounding smoking are very complex. Unfortunately, there are no quick and easy answers to resolve this major problem.

Sherry Twidwell-Cheek is coordinator of Wellness Services at Kennesaw State University. "Wellness" is sponsored by the Office of Health Promotion in the School of Public Health.

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