Selling Cigarettes as a Symbol of Women's Liberation

ByABC News
March 27, 2001, 7:24 PM

March 27 -- From the time women began smoking in America, the tobacco industry has tried to portray cigarettes as a symbol of women's liberation and independence.

Men have been smoking for hundreds of years. But well into the 20th century, the habit was considered unladylike and even immoral for women.

Then in 1929 when smoking by women was illegal in many cities the tobacco industry placed 12 models in an Easter Parade of suffragists in New York. They called their cigarettes "torches of freedom." The message to women was: smoking is independence.

The industry also began to push another message: Be thin. Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.

"It featured beautiful svelte women in the foreground," says Virginia Ernster, associate director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California at San Francisco. "In the background, a shadow with a paunch or a double chin or fat ankle, suggesting if you didn't smoke, you might become fat."

A New Generation

By the late 1960s, Phillip Morris married the messages when it created Virginia Slims, a thin cigarette whose slogan "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" reached out to the new women's rights movement. In the four years that followed the introduction of Virginia Slims, cigarette sales to girls increased 110 percent.

"They succeeded in portraying tobacco as absolutely essential for independence, sexual and social success," says Matthew Meyers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The industry poured millions of dollars into advertisements in women's magazines. Some issues would feature 20 cigarette ads or more.

The tobacco industry's advertising dollars raised questions about the magazines' editorial policy toward smoking.

"My organization, the American Council on Science and Health, has for the last 20 years been examining women's magazines as to how they report on the dangers of smoking," says Elizabeth Whelan, the council's president. "The simplest thing I can say is they don't report at all."