Targeting Women and Girls

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With restrictions on advertisements for cigarettes and the upcoming rules for Plain Packaging, the industry is desperately looking for new ways to reach the public and potential customers. Women, who smoke less than men globally, are a key demographic for tobacco companies.1 When Kate Moss walked down a Parisian catwalk with a cigarette in her first appearance in three years, for Louis Vuitton in the Louvre – on No Smoking Day – this was widely understood as a message that smoking was back in fashion.2 Tobacco companies have identified packaging and brand design as important ways to appeal to women. As a Philip Morris executive put it in 1992:3

“Throughout all our packaging qualitative research, we continue to validate that women are particularly involved with the aesthetics of packaging …we sense that women are a primary target for our innovative packaging task, and that more fashionable feminine packaging can enhance the relevance of some of our brands”.

Image 1 (below) shows an example of how cigarette manufacturers mimic the packaging of cosmetics in order to appeal to female customers.

A box of cigarettes with white and pink packaging next to a lipstick.

Image 1: A photo of Glamour Pinks Superslims (left), sold by Gallaher (JTI) with pink and “slim” packaging designed to imitate that of a lipstick (right). (source: Tobacco Tactics)

Smoking and girls

As of 2015, 175 million women worldwide are regular smokers. Half of female smokers live in high human development index (HDI) countries, 1 Contrary to the previous trend of young men exceeding women as smokers, girls started to overtake boys as smokers in the 1990s. In the UK in 2004, 26% of 15-year-old girls smoked, compared to 16% of boys.4 The gap has narrowed since, according to ASH statistics, with 5% of both boys and girls aged 15 being regular smokers in the UK in 2018.5

Slim cigarettes

In August 2011, Imperial Tobacco (now Imperial Brands) became the third major cigarette supplier to launch a “stylish new cigarette brand”: Richmond Superslims. Promoted as the first “superslim” brand in the value-price cigarette sector, the standard pack is embossed with a “stylish pink design”, “clearly designed to appeal to female smokers” reports The Grocer (Image 1).6

A photo of a newspaper article with the title: "Now Imperial offers the ladies a stylish new cigarette brand".

Image 2: A newspaper ad detailing the release of new “feminine” brands in the UK’s The Grocer retailer newspaper. (source: The Grocer)6

Each of the three other largest transnational tobacco companies at the time also launched female-targeted brands around the same time. Leading the trend was Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which launched its Silk Cut brand in new purple “perfume-shaped” packaging. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) UK criticised the release as an “intentional” targeting of young women, and that to describe a product that can kill in this way is totally unacceptable”.7 In April 2011, British American Tobacco (BAT) introduced Vogue Perle, described as “the UK’s first demi-slim cigarette” (Image 3).8 Philip Morris launched Virginia S by Raffles in May 20119 and Japan Tobacco International brought out limited edition ‘V-shaped’ packs of Silk Cut a month later.10

A newspaper advertisement for British American Tobacco's "Vogue" cigarettes. The image includes the text: "The New Modern Cigarette. The UK's first demi-slim. Don't miss this opportunity".

Image 3: A photo of an advertisement for BAT’s Vogue “demi-slim” cigarettes, which it claims are smoked by “4.7 million adult female smokers in the UK”. (source: Tobacco Tactics)

Cancer Research UK reported that the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi analysed the design of the Vogue packets as being particularly appealing to women:11

“They evoke the classic days of smoking – Jean Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle comes to mind… The smoker feels like a French movie star, as opposed to an addict. And the price premium (£6.20) keeps the ‘vagabonds’ away. Altogether, Vogue is trying to capitalise on a woman’s desire to feel beautiful to sell their cigarettes, which is sad because they can only destroy it”.

Cancer Research UK, doctors and campaign group Fresh, Smoke Free North East were appalled by these new lines of cigarettes. “Young women are obsessed with fashion and staying slim and this is exactly the message this pack is trying to give”, commented Dr Shonag Mackenzie, consultant obstetrician at Wansbeck Hospital in Northumberland to retail magazine The Grocer.12 Dr Mackenzie added: “It is young teenage girls who don’t yet smoke but are probably experimenting who are most likely to be influenced by this”.12

British American Tobacco (BAT) defended itself against claims it “downplayed” the health risks associated with smoking in favour of the “trappings of style, supermodels and staying slim”.12 In response to the criticisms, the company said it did not encourage any individual to start smoking and used the free choice argument. “Adult smokers have different tastes and preferences and we set out to meet them with our portfolio of brands,” BAT Head of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs Ian Robertson told The Grocer. “If adult women who are aware of the health risks ­associated with tobacco choose to smoke, then that is a personal choice”, he added.12

Slimmer cigarettes will be “big money earners”

In December 2011, Retail Newsagent magazine ran the headline that “slimmer cigarettes will be big money earners”. The magazine noted that independent shops “still stand to make a profit on slimmer cigarettes targeted at women smokers, according to British American Tobacco.1314

Smoking and weight loss

Research confirms the perceived links between feminine branding, harmfulness and weight control. Smokers wrongly believe that certain words, such as the names of colours, and long, slim cigarettes mean the brand is less harmful, according to a 2011 study published in Addiction that included 8,000 people. About one-fifth of those smokers thought that “silver”, “gold” and “white” brands are less harmful to smoke than “black” or “red” brands. Professor David Hammond, a tobacco industry expert at Waterloo University, Ontario and one of the researchers on the study, said that the study provides evidence for further regulation: “The findings highlight the deceptive potential of ‘slim’ cigarette brands targeted primarily at young women”.15

Female-branded packs are associated with a greater number of positive attributes including glamour, slimness and attractiveness. Furthermore, those looking at female-oriented cigarette packs branded with words such as “slim” and “vogue” are more likely to believe smoking helps people control their appetite compared with those viewing plain packaging. Weight control issues are an important predictor of smoking among girls according to a Canadian study of 500 young women, also published in Tobacco Control in April 2011.16

However, the fact that the industry markets a connection between smoking and slimming is not as strange as it seems, as is shown by recent research into internal industry documents dating from 1949 to 1999. Tobacco companies have successfully used several strategies over the past 50 years to convince people that smoking makes you thin. British and American tobacco companies deliberately added powerful appetite-suppressing chemicals to cigarettes to attract people worried about their weight.17

Tobacco giants Philip Morris and British American Tobacco added appetite suppressants to cigarettes. Four other major companies tested potential chemicals including tartaric acid, a known appetite suppressant, in the 1960s, which was later banned from the market in 1977 by the US FDA.17

Professor Hammond told the Independent:18

“We know the industry explored ways to exploit concerns about weight loss back in the Sixties, because they knew it was an issue that concerned women, who they wanted to recruit as smokers. We don’t know if appetite-suppressing molecules are still added, because compliance with additive regulations is poor and sensitive internal documents are usually shredded”.

Tobacco CSR and women

Tobacco companies also seek to appropriate women’s empowerment narratives in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies. CSR helps the industry build a positive reputation for itself, gain access to policymakers and divide sceptics, all while continuing to target consumers with lethal products.

The introduction of cigarettes targeted at women coincided with a public outcry about British American Tobacco (BAT) sponsoring the academic careers of four Afghan girls. In May 2011, Durham University was criticised for accepting a GB£125,000 donation towards the Chancellor’s “Scholarships for Afghan Women” appeal. The appeal assisted women to come to Durham from Kabul University to study their postgraduate degrees for five years.

Cancer Research UK argued that BAT’s Vogue advertising puts this sponsorship in a different light, because it shows the real nature of BAT’s concern for women: “The tobacco industry is energetically fighting against the idea of plain packaging because they fear that it will work – and so hurt their profits”.12

A group of concerned academics told the Durham Students Union (DSU) newspaper, Palatinate:19

“The poor judgement in taking funding from the profits of a universally-maligned tobacco giant speaks volumes for the contempt that the university’s leaders and fundraisers have for the ethos and values of this university and its staff and students.”

Anti-smoking charity ASH also criticised the donation: “There’s no stunt they won’t pull to try to look like responsible citizens. The truth is they deal in death”.19

A spokesperson for BAT argued the company had not donated the money in a bid to encourage Afghan women to start smoking. She told The Northern Echo it was all above the board, as a part of the company’s corporate responsibility programme.19

  • Read more about industry funding of universities on CSR: Education.

This single example is part of a larger trend of the industry co-opting the narrative of women’s empowerment in sustainability/CSR reports. Ceylon Tobacco Company (subsidiary of BAT) states that one of the goals of its Sustainable Agricultural Development Programme (SADP) in Sri Lanka is “empowering women and recognising their significant role in each household”.20 And in 2019, Philip Morris International (PMI) paid the Jaime V. Ongpin Foundation, a Philippine NGO, US$2,171,005 as part of a programme to “reduce nationwide poverty” by “empowering women” and “effectively responding to emergency situations”.21

  • Read more about how the tobacco industry frames tobacco cultivation as “women’s empowerment” on our Tobacco Farming

Tobacco Tactics Resources

References

  1. abTobacco Atlas, Prevalence, undated, accessed July 2020
  2. E. Roche, Kate Moss lights up on the catwalk…on no smoking day, Express, 10 March 2011, accessed July 2020
  3. Philip Morris, Marketing Perceptions, 1992, Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, ID:mzhw0124
  4. Anne Karpf, Smoke and minors, The Guardian, 3 June 2011, accessed July 2020
  5. Action on Smoking and Health, Young People and Smoking, factsheet, September 2019, accessed July 2020
  6. abH. Gilbert, Now Imperial offers the ladies a stylish new cigarette brand, The Grocer, 6 August 2011, accessed July 2020
  7. L. Wells, New Silk Cut packs criticised for targeting young women, Packaging News, 20 October 2008, accessed July 2020
  8. Staff Writer, BAT unveils the UK’s first demi-slim cigarette, Talking Retail, 3 March 2011, accessed July 2020
  9. Staff Writer, Philip Morris unveils Virginia S – the new name and look for Raffles cigarettes, Talking Retail, 10 May 2011, accessed July 2020
  10. T. West, Do it yourself, Forecourt Trader, 9 June 2011, accessed July 2020
  11. R. Hewings, Durham University should return British American Tobacco’s money, Science Update Blog, Cancer Research UK, 31 May 2011, accessed July 2020
  12. abcdeS. Hook, BAT claims Vogue launch is not a fashion statement, The Grocer, 6 June 2011, accessed July 2020
  13. Steven Lambert, “Slimmer Cigarettes will be big money earners”, Retail Newsagent, 30 December 2011
  14. James Reilly v big tobacco, Independent.ie, 8 June 2013, accessed July 2020
  15. S. Mutti, D. Hammond, R. Borland, K.M. Cummings, R.J. O’Connor, G.T. Fong, Beyond light and mild: Cigarette brand descriptors and perceptions of risk in the International Tobacco Control Four Country Survey, Addiction, 2011;106(6):1166-1175, doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2011.03402.x
  16. J. Doxey, D. Hammond, Deadly in pink: the impact of cigarette packaging among young women Tobacco Control, 2011;20:353-360, doi:10.1136/tc.2010.038315
  17. abS. Gonseth, I. Jacot-Sadowski1, P.A. Diethelm, V. Barras, J. Cornuz1,
    The tobacco industry’s past role in weight control related to smoking, European Journal of Public Health, 2012;22(2):234-237, doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckr023
  18. N. Lakhani, Tobacco firms used diet-aid chemicals, The Independent, 24 April 2011, accessed July 2020
  19. abcJ. Wills, University comes under fire for accepting tobacco donations, The Northern Echo, 16 May 2011, accessed July 2020
  20. Ceylon Tobacco Company, Corporate Social Investments, CTC website, undated, accessed July 2020
  21. Philip Morris International, 2019 Social Contributions, PMI website, 2020, accessed July 2020