Marketing of Cigarettes to Women

03 Jul, 2015

Smoking patterns changed with the invention of the mass produced, easy-to-use, cheap cigarette at the end of the 19th century. It was clear to cigarette manufacturers that a vast, untapped market lay before them. 

In the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s, cigarettes were the most heavily promoted consumer product. The consequences of the successful marketing of cigarettes to women became clear in the mid-1960s, when an estimated 30,000 American women died of tobacco-related ailments. By 1985, that figure had risen to 106,000 and by 1994, female lung cancer mortality rates had risen 500 percent. Globally, smoking by women is expected to double between 2005 and 2025. However, not all groups were affected equally. 

Smoking rates in the US show certain systematic patterns. Consider Figure 1, which shows smoking rates for approximately 1.5 million U.S. households between 2006 and 2010 (download data from the BRFSS Survey @ CDC ).  
Flipping through various demographic relationships, an obvious trend appears: Smoking in the US follows a strong socioeconomic gradient with rates significantly higher among lower income/education respondents (use the 2 drop-downs to toggle between different demographics)
A more interesting pattern is observed in gender differences across racial groups–prevalence of women smoking compared to men is significantly lower among the Black and Hispanic populations, but gender differences are negligible in the Caucasian whites (use the Race filter to see this). 

Figure 1: Smoking Rates in the US (BRFSS Survey 2006-10, CDC)

The marketing of cigarettes to women over the past century provides clues for the observed patterns of gender differences across racial groups.

Historically, smoking among women was taboo with the prevailing perception that women who smoked were rebellious, possibly “fallen”, and most likely prostitutes. As late as 1908 a woman was arrested for smoking a cigarette in public in New York [1]. With the emancipation of women, magnified by the two world wars when many women assumed occupations that had previously been considered for males only, the prevailing stigma against women smoking was transmuted by a systematic advertising campaign into a new mindset – that women who smoked were symbolizing their emancipation and rise to independence and power.

The marketing approach is exemplified by the 1929 Easter Day parade in New York where recruited young women were cued to light their ‘torches of freedom’ as a symbol of liberation. The publicity stunt was covered widely in media causing national debate [1, 2].

This broad theme of equating smoking with feminism and gender equality was embraced by the tobacco industry in a variety of advertising campaigns, including the Virginia Slims 1968 launch campaign “You’ve come a long was baby”; symbolizing the achievements by  the women’s movement to deserve their own brand. Although smoking rates continue to fall in the West, the lingering effects of the marketing campaigns can still be seen in higher women-to-men smoking rates among the White population in the US, and more generally in the Western industrialized societies with higher gender equality (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Relative Female smoking rates are higher in developed countries with higher Gender Equality 

The consequences of women smoking are well known with female death rates in the US from Lung cancer surpassing Breast cancer by the late 1980’s (Figure 3). Going forward, a question of concern is whether the positive changes in gender norms and increased earning power of women in the developing world will also be accompanied by a similar symbolic uptake in smoking rates. Strategies employed by tobacco firms certainly echo of the lessons learned in marketing cigarettes to women in the West with campaigns highlighting independence, sophistication, glamour, and sexuality.  

Figure 3: Female Cancer Death Rates in the US

[1] An excellent historical account of marketing of cigarettes is provided by Brandt ( For a short description, see Amos, Amanda, and Haglund, Margaretha, “From social taboo to ‘torch of freedom’: the marketing of cigarettes to women, Tobacco Control, 2000; 9:3-8).
[2] The New York Times (April 1, 1929) “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom”

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