How Big Tobacco is Targeting Women

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The tobacco industry has long since employed various marketing strategies to target women and increase their tobacco product consumption, and today, as the industry shifts its focus to e-cigarettes, the tactics remain the same.

Big Tobacco began marketing cigarettes to women in the 1920’s with harmful messaging that aimed to establish a connection between smoking and slimness. As the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum, the tobacco industry saw an opportunity to hook a huge new demographic of potential smokers by drawing a link between smoking and women’s liberation. Fast-forward to the 1960’s, and huge cultural changes were altering the role of women in American society. In 1968, Phillip Morris created Virginia Slims cigarettes specifically marketed for women, carrying slogans like ‘you’ve come a long way baby.’ The 1990’s and early 2000’s brought new campaigns with messaging like “It’s a woman thing” and “Find Your Voice” – a campaign targeted to women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. All campaigns carry an underlying message: smoking cigarettes is a sign of empowerment and liberation, and makes women appear fashionable and sophisticated.

The industry has attempted to frame smoking as a form of emancipation for women and a way to enhance their personal appeal in order to line their pockets. Women’s empowerment narratives have also been appropriated in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies; the introduction of cigarettes targeted at women coincided with British American Tobacco sponsoring the academic careers of four Afghan girls. Anti-smoking charity ASH criticized the donation however, saying “There’s no stunt they won’t pull to try to look like responsible citizens. The truth is they deal in death”.

Today, nothing has changed. The tobacco industry continues to rely on these methods, using similar language and imagery to target young women in e-cigarette advertising. Many advertisements for e-cigarettes are reminiscent of ads for clothing and accessory brands, framing their products as an expression of one’s personal style. E-cigarette companies have also sponsored trendy events in an effort to appeal to young women, such as New York Fashion Week. In addition to fashion and glamour, a common theme in e-cigarette marketing is health and wellness. By featuring images of women exercising alongside slogans like “breathe freely” and “a breath of fresh air,” e-cigarette companies aim to catch the attention of young women.

The tobacco industry’s aggressive targeting of women – in addition to young people, Black Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ individuals – is a huge concern for public health. It is clear that we must accelerate and improve the enforcement of well-established and evidence-based tobacco control measures, particularly those pertaining to marketing restrictions. They should also consider extending these restrictions to new platforms to keep pace with the tobacco industry’s rapidly evolving strategies.

By Emily Kate


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