Beautiful Trap, Big Tobacco Targets for Chinese Women Smokers

January 25, 2015
Editor: Yulanda Wang

What kind of woman smokes? Female smokers are different than those in past years.  In the past, women smokers in China were predominantly elderly or middle-aged rural women, who did not work and who lived in northern China, which was cold in the winter. Nowadays, female smokers in China are mainly young, career women who live in big cities (more susceptible to influence from other countries and regions) in eastern China.

The issue of teenaged smokers — especially females — has received much attention in China. In 2005, a national survey on dangerous behavior by teens indicated that 23 percent of girls in China had tried smoking. Among the female smokers, 68.2 percent admitted they had smoked an entire cigarette before they had turned 13. Compared with results of a 1998 survey, the number of teenaged smokers had increased nearly 15 percent.

The rise in smoking among women is not unique to China; in developed countries, women account for 33.3 percent of all smokers; in developing countries, the number is 12.5 percent on average. In addition, women smokers account for 21 percent of all women in developed countries; in developing countries, the number is 8 percent, and in China, the number is 7.04 percent. Given these numbers, and the history of smoking among women in neighboring countries, the smoking rate is sure to increase among women in China.

Why Women Smoke?

First, some women think smoking is "a symbol of women's liberation." In a male-dominated society, smoking used to be men's privilege, and a way for men to communicate and interact socially. Women smokers, on the other hand, were usually prostitutes, actresses and/or social butterflies, whom others described as dissolute and immoral.

Nowadays, given modernization and the women's liberation movement, some women often ask themselves "why women cannot do what men can do." So, many women began smoking to challenge both men's privilege and traditional gender norms. They think smoking is a symbol of their independence, freedom, equality with men and economic strength. As a result, smoking among women is on the rise. In China, as is the situation in other countries, many teenage girls like holding a cigarette in their hands, as they think it makes them look mature and charming.

Second, some women think smoking is "a method to relieve pressure." Compared with men, women face twice the burdens, as they have to shoulder responsibilities in work and family, and as they must also be engaged in various social activities. They smoke to relieve their pressure and relax their tense nerves. An overseas study indicates that women tend to smoke when they face tough issues in their lives.

Photos of young, smoking women are often seen on social media in China. The women are usually sentimental, upset and anxious, and they have rocky lives and failed romantic relationships. As the Chinese proverb goes, "Women who are not sentimental won't love smoking."

Third, some women think smoking "showcases women's charm." The concept of "feminine beauty," shaped by current social culture, encourages women to smoke. Tobacco companies produce cigarettes especially for women; the cigarettes are long, slender, colorful and have various fragrances. The companies also portray smoking as a stylish and feminine activity. Many young women appreciate and imitate actresses who smoke in TV series and/or films. Some say Hong Kong actress Carina Lau has an elegant posture when she smokes. Others have said late-Hong Kong actress Anita Mui looked mysterious when she smoked.

Fourth, some women think smoking is "a way to lose weight." It is common sense that smoking is harmful to one's health, but some people do not realize that smoking is more harmful to a woman's health than to a man's. When it comes to a woman's health, smoking can disrupt the menstrual cycle, result in difficulty conceiving, reduce the body's production of estrogen, cause osteoporosis and early menopause and age the skin.

Smoking can cause a woman to either miscarriage or give birth to a deformed baby. In addition, smoking increases the risk of several forms of cancer and various cardiovascular, respiratory and lung diseases among women.

So, why do so many women smoke? Women claim that smoking will help them lose weight, even though smoking is harmful to their health. However, there is no scientific evidence to support their claims. To women smokers, good appearance and pleasant body shape outweigh good health. Thus, it can be seen that women are deeply affected by the popular saying "thin is beautiful" and the old Chinese saying "women want to become more beautiful in front of men who appreciate them and make them happy." As a result, more women feel "compelled" to smoke.

Beautiful Trap:Tobacco Manufacturers' Strategies

As many developed countries have had some success in raising the public's awareness of the negative effects of smoking, and as those countries have effectively reduced the increase in the number of men taking up smoking, tobacco producers — commonly referred to as "big tobacco" — have turned their focus on women and teenagers.
China has a large population. There will be a few million new smokers if the number of female smokers rises by one percentage point. With that fact in mind, many tobacco manufacturers, throughout the world, have racked their brains to find new ways to get Chinese women interested in their products.

First, the economic status of Chinese women has increased in recent years. To encourage women to smoke, tobacco manufacturers advocate the liberation of women, and they claim smoking is associated with women's pursuit of charm, freedom, independence and individuality.

Statistics released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate tobacco manufacturers' marketing strategies and sales promotions are working. The percentage of high-school-aged female smokers has risen from 27 percent, in 1991, to 35 percent, in 1999. In Japan, the percentage of women who smoke rose from 8.6 percent, in 1986, to 18.2 percent, in 1991.

Second, given that some women are worried about the health risks of smoking, tobacco manufacturers have produced fruit-flavored cigarettes — especially for women — that have a lower concentration of tar. Thus, the producers mislead women, especially teenagers, to get them smoking. Actually, the so-called safe women's cigarettes do not reduce the harmful effects of smoking.

Third, tobacco manufacturers are more likely now, compared with the past, to use interesting brand names and beautiful packaging. The cigarettes they produce for women are usually long and slender, and they generally have special filters. Some of the brands include DJ MIX, produced by the American Tobacco Company, and other brands, including ESSE, Black Devil and Yves Saint Laurent. Young women, especially those who are curious, and who like beautiful things, are more likely to try smoking when they see such cigarettes.

Fourth, tobacco manufacturers have begun using product placement in TV series and films to lure women and teenagers to smoke. Given the global trend of prohibiting tobacco advertisements, more and more tobacco manufacturers have been advertising their products by having actors/actresses smoke in TV series and films.

According to a survey, among the 29 films and 16 TV series produced in 2004-05 in China, there were 134 smoking scenes in 15 films and TV series, and the combined length was 70.7 minutes. Women accounted for 29.1 percent of the smokers in the films, and 8.66 percent in the TV series. A study shows that smoking scenes in films and TV series have direct impacts on teenagers and lure them to smoke.

Be Healthy, Smart and Responsible Women

Statistics indicate that more than 1.5 million women aged 20 or greater die from smoking-related diseases each year. If greater tobacco-control measures are not taken, the number will reach 2.5 million in 2030. Three-fourths of those deaths will be in developing countries. During the 23rd World No Tobacco Day, on May 31, 2010, the World Health Organization proposed the theme "gender and tobacco with an emphasis on marketing to women."

I hope women will become more aware of and take steps to prevent the negative impacts of smoking, commercialization and consumerism on health and human development. Women, especially those who are elderly, teachers, doctors and/or public figures, should adhere to the concept of sustainable development, and they should maintain healthy lifestyle and consumption patterns, which will have positive effects on their children and others in society. Women should be healthy, smart, intelligent, civilized and have a sense of social responsibility.

(Source: Women of China English Monthly September 2014 Issue)

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