KUALA LUMPUR, 30 JUNE, 2010: Every year, the tobacco industry has to look for new recruits to replace its 'dying' market. Dying prematurely from tobacco-related diseases, that is. And they have found a large, susceptible group of victims to prey on - women.
So successful is their campaign that a World Health Organisation (WHO) report revealed the number of women smokers in developing and developed countries have increased, in contrast to the dwindling number of smokers from the opposite gender.
WHO projected the rate of women smokers worldwide to double by 2025, from about 9.0 percent in 2007. The current number of men smokers of about 40 percent has peaked and is slowly starting to decline.
The gap among adolescent boys and girls who start smoking is also narrowing, with about 7.0 percent of girls lighting up compared to 12 percent boys across the globe.
In Malaysia, the 2006 National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS) showed that adolescent girls between ages 13 and 18 tend to start smoking at the average age of 14.1 years, only a slight difference to boys who start lighting up at 13.6 years.
"We’re seeing an upswing in the trend amongst women smokers here in Malaysia, and what is most worrying is that first time smokers are now becoming younger and younger," said Respiratory Medical Institute Head Datin Dr Aziah Ahmad Mahayiddin at the World No Tobacco Day 2010 celebration held at the institute here recently.
"Schoolgirls who pick up a cigarette for the very first time are often driven by peer pressure, and it is vital that we reach out to them to offer our support and expertise to help them kick the habit."
According to the world health body, women make up about 20 percent of the world’s estimated 1.0 billion smokers.
That is about 200 million women and counting, as the epidemic of tobacco use among women is increasing in some countries.
Preying on Insecurities
Dr Aziah said women are the biggest target group of the tobacco industry today because they are viewed as "unexplored potentials".
"Women today are more socially advanced, educated and successful in their careers. They have better purchasing powers and have more freedom in making decisions compared to yesterday. So if the marketing techniques hit the right spot, they feel theycan take up smoking anytime they please," she said.
Tobacco companies understand this and bombard women with seductive advertising to make them believe that smoking cigarettes are a symbol of their freedom, emancipation, glamour and sex appeal.
Ironically, those marketing techniques are tailored to milk on female insecurities such as the need to stay slim, look stylish and to be on "equal footing" with their male counterparts.
"There is no beauty or sophistication in smoking. What is evident is only the ugliness and the diseases it brings," said Deputy Health Minister Datuk Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin, who opened the World No Tobacco Day celebration.