Saving Asian women from cigarettes

AFTER working all night, a call centre worker in the Philippines lights up a cigarette as she walks home at 6am. A fashion model in Shanghai fondles a cigarette before taking to the ramp. A female car factory worker in Hanoi takes a drag before boarding her motorbike. And a woman journalist smokes continuously while beating a deadline in a newsroom in Kuala Lumpur.

As Asian women are increasingly gaining independence and income, the tobacco industry has astutely targeted them as a new market to replace those people in the West who quit or die prematurely from cancer, heart disease and strokes.

Globally, 20 per cent of the world’s one billion smokers are women. In Singapore, the number of women who smoke on a daily basis grew from 3.5 per cent of the total number of women in 2004 to 3.7 per cent in 2007 — a relatively insignificant increase that is possibly due to the laudable restrictions the city state has placed on tobacco advertising.

The largest increase in the number of women who smoke daily was in the 18 to 29 years range, where the numbers went up over the same period from 6.6 per cent to 9.1 per cent.

Based on the Global Youth Tobacco Survey in the Western Pacific, it is estimated that 8.4 per cent of about 55 million girls aged 13 to 15 (around 4.7 million girls) use tobacco products. Some countries have observed sharp increases in smoking among girls. In New Zealand, for example, smoking among girls aged 13 to 15 years increased from 23.9 per cent in 2007 to 39.9 per cent in 2009.

Recent studies on what women say about smoking are instructive: It is enjoyable. It perks me up. I like the way I look when I exhale. It helps me relax. It keeps me from slowing down. It keeps me slim. Why not? All my friends smoke. It helps me when I am feeling angry.

This is not far from how women in the United States in the 1950s responded to marketing strategies that played on women’s desire to break away from traditional roles: cigarettes represented freedom, independence and defiance.

Wrong. Smoking is not chic or glamorous. Smoking is ugly, smelly and dangerous.

Asian women do not need to go down the same wrong path that their Western sisters took in the last century. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which all countries of the Western Pacific Region are signatories, calls for comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion.

Governments have obligations to protect women from false messages, deceptive advertisements and lies that are perpetuated to lure them into a lifetime of nicotine dependence, sickness and premature death. Women’s groups, civil society and communities need to require their governments to protect their right to health.

Beyond saying no to smoking, women in Asia can be empowered to say no to the men who smoke in their homes and workplaces. They can walk away when someone smokes in an enclosed room. They can avoid second-hand smoke, a carcinogen that is just as nasty as smoking itself.

A study in Shanghai of 72,000 non-smoking women found that exposure to their husbands’ smoking increased these women’s risks of dying from lung cancer and heart disease by almost 40 per cent. The women also had a nearly 50 per cent higher risk of stroke.

Women in Asia have a right to health and a life free from addiction. Turning away from tobacco is the more empowered choice.

These are the messages that WHO will be sending out on World No-Tobacco Day on Monday and beyond. For the next generation of Asian people to be protected, every effort must be made to shield today’s women and girls from the evil guiles of the tobacco companies.

Dr Shin Young-soo is WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific

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