OTI Online
Summer 1994

Smoke Yourself Thin
by Suzanne Levine


Longing to be independent, exuberant, popular, sexy, and slim? The tobacco industry spends more than $4 billion dollars a year in advertising to show you the way. Advertising has turned the cigarette into one of the most popular products of the 20th century. The method sophisticated marketers use is called "image-based advertising," a kind of cultural magic in which the scenario depicted in an ad is associated in the consumer mind with the benefits of the product. Bombarded by ad images exploiting and reinforcing cultural ideals of happiness and beauty, a woman may be subhminally inclined to light up a smoke as a means of achieving instant social acceptance.

"Smoking is a feminist issue," says Ellen Gritz, M.D., of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. No other product of comparable danger is so vigorously promoted to women through the popular media.

The tobacco industry's intensive efforts to promote smoking among women and girls is foremost among the factors influencing females to smoke, according to the American Medical Association's 1993 Final Conference Report on Tobacco Use. It's a deadly business. As a direct result of the increased use of tobacco products, lung cancer now surpasses breast cancer as the number one cause of cancer deaths among women. Not only do women smokers face the same health-related diseases as men, they are also at increased risks of complications during pregnancy and osteoporosis.

The major women's magazines, which rely heavily on revenues from tobacco advertisements, contain remarkably little on the dangers of smoking. "A major focus of these magazines is to address health issues," comments Dr. Gritz, "yet there remains very heavy editorial pressure, direct or indirect, to specifically avoid mentioning the hazards of smoking." This can leave readers with the false impression that smoking is actually healthy.

One way the tobacco companies exert a powerful editorial hold is by routinely requesting that they be informed of any anti-smoking articles in advance, so as to be given a chance to pull their ads from that issue. "Until you become sensitized to the self-censorship in magazines, it's hard to notice the omissions," says Dr. Gritz.

The Magic of Marketing Weight-reduction, desire for independence, and appeals to youthfulness are three of the common ploys tobacco marketers use to target women. The association of cigarettes with slenderness began as early as 1925, Dr. Gritz points out, when Lucky Strike launched the "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet" campaign, using testimonials from such famous women as Amelia Earhart and Jean Harlow. Today, the theme is expressed more tenuously, with many women's brands using code words for weight control such as "thin," "slim," "superslim," and "long".

The emphasis on thinness by the industry has intensified over time, according to Dr. Gritz. "Many advertisements today no longer depict a beautiful women, but a figure which has become so thin and elongated that it's wavy, drawn-out, almost grotesque," she says. "It reminds me of the distortion in body-image that accompanies eating disorders."

The effect of the relationship between weight control and smoking on adolescent girls is alarming. Dr. Gritz notes that research studies found that:

* Adolescents intending to begin smoking had ideal selfimages that more closely resembled the models pictured in cigarette ads than did intended nonsmokers.

* Smoking rates are higher among females with eating disorders.

* The use of diet pills and amphetamines to control weight is greater among female smokers than nonsmokers.

* The belief that cigarette smoking is a means of weight control is much more prevalent in smokers.

The first cigarette brand designed exclusively for women was Virginia Slims, launched by Philip Morris in 1967, with its "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" campaign. "In girls younger than 18 years, smoking initiation increased abruptly around 1967, when tobacco advertising aimed at selling specific brands to women were introduced," according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Smoking initiation rates for adolescent boys showed little change during the entire study period.

Ironically, the tobacco industry has taken advantage of the advances of women in our society by the use of provocative "feminist" themes in cigarette ads. They seduce young smokers with a "liberation" quick-fix, selling cheaply that which we have not yet fully achieved.

Current campaigns, such as the Virginia Slims promotion of a "classic cool" charm bracelet FREE with fifty proofs of purchase, are clearly enticing to the underage set. RJ. Reynolds' child-appealing cartoon character "Joe Camel" has been attacked since its 1987 debut. This February, "Josephine Camel" was introduced for the first time, in an effort which critics call an attempt to broaden the brand's appeal to women smokers. "I wish the Federal Trade Commission had acted on the recommendation [to ban "Joe Camel"], former Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello told the Wall Street Journal. "It is my hope that the introduction of a female camel will be the straw that breaks the camel's back on public and policy opinion."

The women's movement is just beginning to look at tobacco control as a feminist issue, though the National Organization for Women stopped accepting tobacco industry contributions years ago. In 1992 the First International Conference on Women and Smoking was held. It called for a comprehensive women-centered global strategy to reduce the exploitation of women by the cultivation, production, and marketing of tobacco.

Women and Girls Against Tobacco (WAGAT), formed in 1992, is working to persuade magazine publishers not to run tobacco ads. It is also working with People, Essence, and Glamour, national magazines with a large female adolescent readership, to increase the coverage of tobacco-related issues. The American Medical Women's Association has taken an organized stand against smoking by training members in tobacco-control media advocacy. And the International Network of Women Against Tobacco was founded in 1990 to unite women in actions to prevent tobacco use.

To overcome the power of advertising, creative feminists need to cultivate immunity against marketed images and the ingenuity to cast new ones. While the number of adult women smokers is on the decline, Dr. Gritz observes that "a convincing image of the nonsmoker that can rival the tobacco industry's female smoker is not yet in place."


Suzanne Levine is an assistant editor on this magazine.


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