Tobacco Makers Target Women Overseas

A woman peers seductively into the camera from behind a locker room shower stall, her hands combing through her long dark hair.

Her neighbors in the stalls next to her grin bashfully, trying not to notice. But since she's showering in the middle of a men's locker room, it's hard for them not to.

"Do I Look Shy?" reads the photo's caption.

Lest you think this is an ad for a soft porn video — look again. It's an ad for Winston cigarettes.

Ads Through the Ages

The ad, which ran in South Africa, is just one example of the many ways that tobacco companies are using images of strong, independent women to market their products all over the world. Long a tradition in the United States, images like these, which appeal to women customers, are now becoming commonplace in overseas markets where the rates of women smoking are far less than that of men.

Vast Opportunity

In fact, a recent study from the World Health Organization calls selling tobacco products to women the single largest marketing opportunity in the world. In 1996, only between 2 percent and 10 percent of women in developing countries smoked, compared to 25 percent to 30 percent of women in developed countries, according to the WHO.

While data on international marketing spending is difficult to ascertain, tobacco companies spent more than $8.2 billion on advertising and promotional activities in the United States alone in 1999, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And like tobacco advertisements that have appeared in the U.S., companies are using images of beautiful, thin, independent women to attract women internationally.

Tobacco companies "use primarily scenes that have been used for 50 years here to market overseas," says Nancy Kaufman, vice president of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and co-author of a WHO report on the global marketing of tobacco to women.

Kaufman says many of the regions tobacco companies target include Asia, Africa, India and former Soviet bloc nations — areas in which the rates of smoking among women are far lower than for men. Besides advertising, many companies also give out free cigarette samples and sponsor cultural and athletic events in countries where tobacco advertising is restricted or severely limited, she says.

Marketing in China

"By marketing to women, by getting women addicted to tobacco, you sort of help reinforce tobacco use as a normal activity," says Ross Hammond, international consultant for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "And you make a ton of money."

Does Advertising Work?

Though some studies conclude that advertising can lead non-smokers to pick up the habit, whether or not advertising can convince non-smokers to begin smoking is a subject of great debate. One statistic from the National Health Interview Survey showed that in the wake of the Virginia Slims' "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" campaign that was launched in 1967, smoking initiation among female adolescents nearly doubled to 6.2 percent by 1972.

Targeting Tobacco to Women

"To say that advertising has no affect on consumption defies any common sense," argues Tobacco-Free Kids' Hammond. "Why does Philip Morris advertise their food products? To get current cookie users to switch from their current brand to Oreos? No, it's to get more users."

A Philip Morris spokesman said the company takes pains to gear its advertising and sampling activities toward "adults who choose to smoke." Like many tobacco companies, Philip Morris gives out cigarette samples in age-restricted locales like nightclubs, but the spokesman could not confirm whether or not samples were also given to non-smokers.

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