Women in Europe smoke most globally, and numbers are increasing

The prevalence of women and girl smokers in the WHO European Region is the highest among females in the world. The difference between the sexes is also among the smallest, and the gap is closing rapidly in some parts of the Region, particularly in the east. The impact of the tobacco industry’s activities that specifically target females across the Region is indisputable. A new WHO/Europe publication, “Empower women: combating tobacco industry marketing in the European Region” is a starting point in providing countries with a practical guide to take back the true meaning of “empowering women”.

The burden of tobacco across the WHO European Region is tremendous, and is a powerful factor in the health disparities among socioeconomic groups and gender. The rapid increase in uptake of tobacco among women in many countries is threatening progress made in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) directly related to health.  WHO/Europe partnered the International Network of Women Against Tobacco (INWAT) in developing this publication, to provide a practical framework for promoting a gender perspective in policy-making and action.

Social and cultural constraints are weakening. Female spending power is increasing, and women are becoming increasingly empowered. These are all very positive developments, but the global community needs to work together to maximize the benefits of globalization and address its consequences. Across the Region, it has become more acceptable, possibly even glamorous, for women and girls to use tobacco. The impact of the tobacco industry’s false portrayal of smoking as a symbol of female empowerment is indisputable.

The publication illustrates, largely through case examples, the wide spectrum of the tobacco industry’s promotional activities that specifically target women and girls. This includes less traditional forms of promotion, such as using the pack itself as a form of advertising. With examples of anti-tobacco activities from across Europe, the publication also serves as a practical guide for countries to accelerate their anti-tobacco work.

The publication reinforces the power of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control as a legal instrument to help stakeholders approach tobacco control with a gender equality framework.

Efforts should continue to sustain the downward trend in male and female smoking seen in some European countries, and to focus more attention on halting and reversing the level of smoking in girls and women where it is increasing. There is a need to take back the true meaning of “empowering women”.