Every year, 2 million women die from tobacco use. On International Women's Day 2021, we explore some of the research which shows the dangers of smoking to women and girls, and how the tobacco industry continues to target them.
Of the world's one billion smokers, 200 million are women. Research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that while overall smoking rates are decreasing, the rate for women is decreasing more slowly than that for men, and in some countries is actually increasing. Tobacco use amongst women in the WHO-European Region was the highest in the world in 2018, with a rate of 19% compared with a global rate of 9%. Particularly concerning is WHO's estimate that around 12% of girls aged 13-15 are tobacco users in the European Region, compared with a global average of 8%.
Women face the same health risks as men from tobacco use, including an increased risk of heart disease, strokes and lung cancer. However they face additional harm to their reproductive health, including an increased risk of infertility and delays in conceiving, increased risk of cervical cancer, and, if they smoke during pregnancy, increased risks of premature delivery, stillbirth and newborn death.
Despite this, the tobacco industry has a long history of targeting women and girls through gendered marketing, advertising and sponsorship campaigns. Tobacco Tactics explains how, prior to plain packaging legislation in the UK, companies used "slim" brands and different packaging to appeal to a particular audience. The WHO report identifies more recent tactics, including product placement in TV shows and films, online promotion, and the use of social media influencers.
The industry also uses so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes to align itself with women's groups. According to the WHO report, tobacco companies have repeatedly invested in organisations working on domestic violence, sponsoring academic careers for women, and building support among more credible groups such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog in which TCRG is a partner, has produced a new Brief outlining how women and girls continue to be targeted and harmed by the tobacco industry. The Brief explains how the tobacco industry hinders rather than helps the realisation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender Equality), despite its claims otherwise.
It's not just women users of tobacco products who suffer - women and children working in the tobacco industry are also at risk. Writing on the GGTC blog, Prof Judith Mackay states that "while tobacco companies boast about their equity programmes, these whitewash over the harsh reality faced by millions of women in tobacco growing in low and middle-income countries – undertaking hazardous work, becoming impoverished and far from empowered. The companies benefit immensely by purchasing leaves from poor countries at low prices, take almost no responsibility for the problems of child labour and leave the sick behind."
For more information:
Please visit the STOP website to read the full brief on Women and the Tobacco Industry.
For more background research on how the tobacco industry targets women and girls, please visit the Tobacco Tactics website.
Read the WHO report Through a Gender Lens - Women and Tobacco in the WHO European Region.