The Alliance of Boulder County
on Tobacco and Health

Alliance, Tobacco as a Problem for Women

June 18, 2001

Smoking Clouds Women's Futures

by Cheryl Healton
USA Today, Monday, 3/26/01
Fasten your seat belts, ladies. If you thought the recent news about smoking was bad, just wait until you see what Tuesday brings. First the Federal Trade Commission announced that tobacco companies spent $8.24 billion on ads and promotions in 1999, the most ever in one year. Now the first surgeon general's report on women and smoking in 20 years will be released Tuesday. It will paint a gloomy picture of the rise in smoking-related illnesses and deaths among women, and lay much of the blame on tobacco- marketing strategies that target women. Many women and girls don't seem to be getting the message about smoking's dangers. For the first time, girls now are smoking at about the same rate as boys. And most women have a dangerous misperception about one of smoking's worst results: lung cancer. Four out of five women surveyed by the American Legacy Foundation in January said breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women. They are dead wrong. About 40% fewer women die from breast cancer than from lung cancer, which kills 67,600 annually. Nor did the majority of the more than 1,000 women surveyed know that heart disease, which also is smoking-related, is the No. 1 killer of women. Perhaps women are more aware of breast cancer because there are more breast-cancer survivors to share their stories. Breast cancer has a 96% five-year survival rate if detected early. But more than 85% of lung-cancer victims die within five years of diagnosis. It's a preventable tragedy: 87% of lung-cancer cases in women wouldn't occur if they never smoked.

'Blow some my way'

One reason women don't recognize or ignore lung cancer's dangers is tobacco advertising, which long has linked smoking with values that many women (and men) care about: independence, sophistication, sex appeal, appearance. An early 20th century ad proclaimed, "Cigarettes are like girls the best ones are rich and thin," and a billboard from that era showed a woman asking a male smoker to "Blow some my way." During the height of the women's liberation movement, a determined-looking woman in one ad said, "Until I find a real man, I'll settle for a real smoke." The Virginia Slims campaign launched in the 1960s carried the slogan, "You've come a long way, baby." Today, the girls and women lured into smoking by that campaign are older, wiser and, in many cases, dead. Recently, a "Find Your Voice" Virginia Slims campaign targeted vulnerable women in racial and ethnic groups. Smoking has risen among poor women, and the impact on their families' budgets to say nothing of their health can be devastating. In New York City, a family with two parents who each smoke two packs a day could pay about $140 a week for cigarettes, or roughly $600 per month. That's more than 40% of the income of a family of four living at the poverty line.

The influence of ad revenues

Also troubling is the way ad dollars influence the coverage of the tobacco issue by women's magazines. Michigan researcher Ken Warner found that the more tobacco-ad dollars that women's magazines take in, the less coverage they give to smoking. Sadly, only a handful of women's magazines decline the tobacco advertising that undermines the health of their readers. About 140,000 U.S. women die of smoking-related illnesses annually. The tobacco marketers simply replenish their customer base with the hundreds of thousands of teenagers who start smoking every year. The tobacco industry's marketing campaign has been so effective that smoking-related illnesses kill more Americans every year than car accidents, alcohol, AIDS, murders, suicides, drugs and fires combined. Tuesday, the surgeon general will tell us much more about women and smoking. Meanwhile, the solution remains the same: Force the tobacco companies to stop "blowing some" our way. Cheryl Healton is president and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation, established two years ago to advocate reduced tobacco use after an agreement among state attorneys general and the tobacco industry.
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