A young woman protests tobacco with face paint during a campaign to prevent cigarette smoking in India.

Women: Stand Up to Big Tobacco

It’s no secret that for decades, Big Tobacco has made trillions of dollars selling a deadly habit by making it seem subversive and cool. While the industry has targeted both men and women, lately tobacco companies have made a concerted effort to attract female customers with pop culture partnerships, pretty packaging and seductive messaging like “stylish and small,” and “light and luscious”—designed not just to attract new consumers but to hook them for life.

That’s why today, International Women’s Day, I encourage all of us to continue pressing for progress on a threat that will undoubtedly limit women’s futures—tobacco use.

As tobacco companies lose market share in high-income countries, they are increasingly going after women in low- and middle-income countries—countries that are least able to fend off their deep pockets and aggressive marketing and whose populations are most at risk for dying of tobacco-related diseases. Today, women make up 20% of the world’s smokers, and that percentage is rising. Diseases caused by tobacco kill over 7 million people each year, accounting for more than 1 in 10 deaths worldwide—mostly in the developing world.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Tobacco use is a problem with a solution.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has spent the last 11 years taking on the tobacco industry with great results. Since we began working on tobacco control in 2007 our efforts have helped save nearly 35 million lives. Through the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, we’ve committed nearly a billion dollars to expand tobacco control efforts across the globe. We’ve worked in and with countries like Brazil, China, Russia and Bangladesh who have among the world’s highest burdens of smoking to implement policies we know work: smoke-free laws, marketing bans and tobacco taxes. When we started in 2007, just 10 countries were smoke free; now 55 countries have comprehensive smoke-free legislation protecting 1.5 billion people.

There’s still more work to be done, and we need to remain vigilant against the continued efforts of tobacco companies to push their products on women in particular.

In Indonesia, for example, tobacco companies sponsor concerts and deploy young women with little cigarette cases to give away free samples to their peers. While in China, they sell adorable-looking Hello Kitty-branded cigarette packs.

A staggering, 70% of worldwide deaths – most in developing countries - are caused by noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes and others. Tobacco use is a risk factor for all of them, making tobacco one of the biggest health threats to people everywhere.

There is a nagging misperception that NCDs primarily affect men. In fact, according to the WHO, NCDs have been the leading causes of death among women globally for at least the past 3 decades, killing 2 out of 3 women who die each year, making tobacco exposure a major concern for women—and their families—worldwide.

For example, in many lower-income countries, just a small percentage of women use tobacco products, but many live with an adult male who smokes, exposing them and their children to dangerous levels of secondhand smoke.

On this International Women’s Day, I urge women around the world to get smart about the ways in which tobacco companies are trying to manipulate us into adopting a lethal habit.

Tackling the spread of tobacco-related diseases should be our highest priority. Women need to know that the best thing we can do for our health is to stop smoking—or never to start. We should ensure our daughters, mothers, sisters and friends don’t either. In a world in which women are increasingly using their power to create the future we want to see, we need to use our voices to call out the tobacco industry’s shameful tactics—and show that when it comes to our health, we mean business.

Kelly Henning, a medical doctor and epidemiologist, leads the public health program at Bloomberg Philanthropies.


Ed. Note: Michael R. Bloomberg is a benefactor of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which publishes Global Health NOW.

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A young woman protests tobacco with face paint during a campaign to prevent cigarette smoking in India. © 2008 Saurabh Mittal, Courtesy of Photoshare