A tirade of an addicted cigarette smoker, directed at the tobacconist who is now targeting my sister and my daughter.
By Mwiti Marete
The first photograph I saw of a Rwandan was that of a pipe-smoking middle-aged woman.
It may be many years ago, but that particular photograph is still etched in my mind. What struck me – and still does today – as odd with the picture was that the woman had a lit pipe dangling from her lips. And she was smiling at the camera, her two hands busy picking tea leaves, obviously oblivious of the pain she would cause me.
The caption said she was a Rwandan peasant. That made me recoil: my rural upbringing taught me that it is the ‘women of loose morals’, otherwise called prostitutes, who smoke. So what was this old lady – who I assumed was a mother and wife leading a rustic lifestyle somewhere on the Rwandan hillsides – doing, aping bad habits of the cities’ red-light districts?
I already knew the dangers of this most addictive Latin American vegetable on our health, thanks to our scientists. I also knew that smoking is a bad habit, thanks to my moralist society. What I didn’t know about is the tobacconists’ dizzying predation on women. But now I do.
By UN estimates, about 250 million women in the world – excluding those using other forms of tobacco – are daily smokers. About 22% of women in developing countries and 9% in the developing world smoke. The explanation for this disparity, I would learn, is that while tobacco companies are losing clients in the West, the market in the Third World is spiralling.
And that of the fairer sex is being ruthlessly pursued. Look around you, and you’ll see women and girls increasingly proudly puffing away. That, dear reader, is the tobacconist’s deep pocket and smart brains at work!
Busting smoking record
Says “Tobacco Explained” research project, a survey of thousands of tobacco industry documents by Action on Smoking and Health - ASH (www.ash.org), a UK-based organisation: “Among teenagers the smoking rate for girls is rising fastest: in some countries they are now out-smoking their male counterparts for the first time in history.
“Although still thought of by many as male diseases, rates of lung cancer and heart disease among women have risen to mirror their smoking rate. Women enjoy no mysterious immunity: in some parts of the UK lung cancer now kills more women than any other cancer. Heart disease is Britain's biggest overall killer of women.”
The causes of these trends are complex, says ASH. “Factors such as the changing position of women in society, their increasing social and economic independence and the past failures of the anti-smoking lobby and health promotion agencies to present smoking and its effects as a problem relevant to women need to be taken into account.”
But hear this: “The tobacco industry argues that everyone has an equal ability to make free choices and that it is everyone’s ‘right’ to have ‘access’ to cigarettes advertising. However, studies show that around 90% of women smokers started before the age of eighteen,” charges ASH.
The job of tobacco marketing is not, however, to provide information to assist informed choice.
“Tobacco advertising is inherently misleading – it suggests a promise of glamour or excitement that the product simply cannot offer. Moreover, advertising for ‘lights’ or more feminine brands is very deceptive – these products give health reassurance, but offer no significant health gains over ordinary cigarettes. Lights are a con, and so is the advertising that promotes them.”
WHO validates this. “The tobacco industry promotes cigarettes to women using seductive but false images of vitality, slimness, modernity, emancipation, and sexual allure. In reality, it causes disease and death,” moans the global health body.
And tobacco manufacturers are making headway, if this, from the trade journal “Tobacco Reporter” (1982), is anything to go by: “… Women smokers are likely to increase as a percentage of the total. Women are adopting more dominant roles in society: they have increased spending power, they live longer than men. And as a recent official report showed, they seem to be less influenced by the anti-smoking campaigns than their male counterparts.
"All in all, that makes women a prime target ….”
“Industry efforts to target women are there for all to see. By identifying women's views and desires, the industry hopes to exploit current trends. … and to predict future trends.
Since the introduction of Virginia Slims in 1968, there has been an explosion of female-only brands,” adds ASH. This explains the “lights” brands explosion. Hence, the smoking woman is no longer taboo but fashionable. Iconic even. The ‘Marlboro Woman’.
An R. J. Reynolds (RJR) document entitled "Women's response to advertising imagery" says women are seen to respond well to 'tender' imagery in advertising.” Things like intimacy and closeness; tenderness and gentleness; loving; caring; sharing; escape and fantasy. “Career women reacted most positively to imagery associated with elegance and success,” it adds.
A 1976 research report: “Smoking behaviour of women differs from that of men … [women are] more highly motivated to smoke … find it harder to stop smoking … are more neurotic than men … there may be a case for launching a female oriented cigarette with relatively high deliveries of nicotine ….” ‘Deliveries’, my foot! To the grave? Ha! That’s BAT for you!
Surprisingly, the industry has repeatedly claimed that it does not target people under the age of 18, argues ASH. “[The tobacco industry] assures us that its marketing is aimed at persuading those who already smoke to switch brands. Its own documents, however, show that the industry sees young women as a growth area and that it is targeting them accordingly,” ASH laments.
I already know what smoking does to men; it killed my Dad. People, let’s not stand aside and look as our mothers, sisters and daughters fall into the same hole.
On ASH’s Web site is posted a hand-written letter received by RJR in January 1991, in response to the tobacconist’s ‘roving eye’:
"Dear Sirs, You are sending Christmas Cards and Coupons to encourage my 15-year-old daughter to smoke. Please remove my daughter from your mailing list.”
How brave! All the reason to have more of the ‘Dear Sirs’ – in the local languages – clogging the tobacco companies’ mailboxes, don’t you think?