Torches of Freedom
Targeting of Cigarettes to Women
The past two centuries have seen significant strides in women’s rights in social, economic, and political spheres. At least in the developed world, women have come a long way from being considered the property of their husband (or father) to enjoying equality, in legal rights if not necessarily in opportunities and outcomes. One aspect of gender equality, albeit with unfortunate and tragic consequences, has been the near equalization of smoking rates between men and women in the western world.
Consider Figure 1 which shows smoking rates for approximately 1.5 million U.S. households between 2006 and 2010. As one flips through various demographic interactions, two patterns are apparent. First, smoking in the US follows a strong socio-economic gradient with rates significantly higher among lower Income/education respondents. More interestingly, prevalence of smoking among women is considerably less than men in the Black and Hispanic populations, while the gender differences in smoking rates are negligible for Caucasian Whites (use the “Race” filter to see this).
Figure 1: Smoking Rates in the US
Source: BRFSS Survey, CDC, 2006-10 (Approx. 1.5 million Observations)
Figure 2: Relative Female Smoking Rates & Gender Inequality
Relative rates of Female smoking are higher in developed countries with higher Gender Equality
Figure 3: Female Cancer Death Rates in the US
Consequences of female smoking have been drastic
The marketing of cigarettes to women over the past century provides clues for the observed patterns of gender differences across racial groups. Historically, smoking among women was taboo with the prevailing perception that women who smoked were rebellious, possibly "fallen", and most likely prostitutes. As late as 1908 a woman was arrested for smoking a cigarette in public in New York . With the emancipation of women, magnified by the two world wars when many women assumed occupations that had previously been considered for males only, the prevailing stigma against women smoking was transmuted by a systematic advertising campaign into a new mindset - that women who smoked were symbolizing their emancipation and rise to independence and power.
The marketing approach is exemplified by the 1929 Easter Day parade in New York where recruited young women were cued to light their ‘torches of freedom’ as a symbol of liberation. The publicity stunt was covered widely in media causing national debate [1, 2]. This broad theme of equating smoking with feminism and gender equality was embraced by the tobacco industry in a variety of advertising campaigns, including the Virginia Slims 1968 launch campaign “You’ve come a long was baby”; symbolizing the achievements by the women's movement to deserve their own brand.
Although smoking rates continue to fall in the West, the lingering effects of the marketing campaigns can still be seen in higher women-to-men smoking rates among the White population in the US, and more generally in the Western industrialized societies with higher gender equality (Figure 2).
The consequences of women smoking are well known with female death rates in the US from Lung cancer surpassing Breast cancer by the late 1980’s (Figure 3). Going forward, a question of concern is whether the positive changes in gender norms and increased earning power of women in the developing world will also be accompanied by a similar symbolic uptake in smoking rates. Strategies employed by tobacco firms certainly echo of the lessons learned in marketing cigarettes to women in the West with campaigns highlighting independence, sophistication, glamour, and sexuality.
 An excellent historical account of marketing of cigarettes is provided by Brandt (http://www.cigarettecentury.com). For a short description, see Amos, Amanda, and Haglund, Margaretha, "From social taboo to 'torch of freedom': the marketing of cigarettes to women, Tobacco Control, 2000; 9:3-8).
 The New York Times (April 1, 1929) “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom”