Kills when used as prescribed – tobacco industry successfully targets girls with new marketing tactics

Copenhagen, 30 May 2012

A lethal combination of new media and a new market is threatening public health, with creative marketing tactics leading to a striking rise in smoking prevalence among women and girls in the WHO European Region. Tobacco-industry interference is the theme for World No Tobacco Day 2012.

In the Region, 22% of women smoke: a high average compared to those for women in Africa, Asia and the Middle East (3–5%). While tobacco use was previously largely a male phenomenon, the gap in prevalence between male and female adults is now very small in countries such as Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, and closing in others. In Sweden and Norway, the prevalence of daily tobacco smoking is higher in women. Similarly, more girls than boys are using tobacco in Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland and Slovenia.

As health messages reach other sections of society, young women and girls remain a highly viable market for the tobacco industry, and new communication forms make it easier to reach them.

“Smoking behaviour is typically established during adolescence and the tobacco industry shamelessly profits from the vulnerability of girls of this age, targeting them as new cigarette addicts. There is a complete conflict of interest between the health of the population and a tobacco industry that sees low smoking rates as a market opportunity,” says Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

Why girls?

As girls and women’s spending power increases, the industry has portrayed smoking as a symbol of empowerment, emancipation and success.

In the Russian Federation, prevalence among females is rising rapidly and targeted marketing campaigns have been effective. For example, the 2009 Russian edition of a well-known international magazine for women and girls depicted a woman with a cigarette and a man behind her. This campaign contributed to a 117% increase in tobacco consumption among women, with this brand becoming the leader among females in the country.

In some countries, awareness of the health risks of smoking is insufficient, and the addictive nature of tobacco is underestimated. Prices are low, unlicensed sales commonplace and the use of misleading terms such as “light” and “mild” is legal. Nearly 19% of adults in Romania believe that light cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes, and close to 18% in Poland believe that certain types of cigarettes can be less harmful than others.

New forms of communication

Although current legislation bans tobacco advertising in many countries, it leaves loopholes for other marketing techniques. Tobacco companies use viral marketing, social networking and mobile telephones, exploiting the enormous potential of new media to reach children and young people. In France, a study showed that three quarters of French films featured a character smoking. In Romania, WHO’s 2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey revealed a new phenomenon: young women offering to exchange new packs of the cigarettes that they are promoting for smokers’ open packs.

The cigarette pack and specially formulated cigarettes (called “light”, “slim” or “super-slim”) are used to appeal to the female market. For example, some 100 special brands for women have been introduced in the Russian market, where they are promoted with images of glamour and fashion. Packs designed to resemble lipstick cases can be found across the Region, from the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy to Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

The industry continues to use forms of promotion with few restrictions, such as: sponsorship of sport and the arts, distribution of free products, promotional web sites and paid placement of cigarette brands in films or on television. Many countries have no legislation governing advertising on the Internet or at point of sale, or brand stretching (extending a well-known brand to a different product category).

Not a fair fight

With its economic power, lobbying and marketing machinery, the tobacco industry works actively to prevent the adoption of regulatory measures by:

  • continuing to question the harm caused by tobacco, despite overwhelming scientific evidence;
  • exaggerating the economic benefits of the industry, especially in eastern Europe;
  • using front groups to hide its actions;
  • lobbying policy-makers and other stakeholders to block tobacco-control measures; and
  • funding scientists and researchers, including universities.

A study in the British Medical Journal showed that, of 90 universities and 16 medical faculties in a North American country, 39% had received donations from the tobacco industry, and 4 of the 16 medical faculties had received research grants.

WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – a way to fight back

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of WHO. Developed in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic, it has been ratified by 174 countries.

“The WHO FCTC is the world’s best chance of restricting the tobacco industry’s activities, and it is evolving to take these new marketing methods into account. It closes doors that would otherwise be wide open to an industry that profits from marketing a severely harmful product and an industry that is as poisonous in its marketing as is the product that it sells,” says Gauden Galea, Director of Noncommunicable Diseases and Health Promotion at WHO/Europe.

For further information, contact:

Kristina Mauer-Stender
Programme Manager (a.i.) Tobacco, WHO/Europe
Tel.: +45 39 17 15 01

Liuba Negru
Corporate Communications, WHO/Europe
Tel: +45 39 17 13 44, +45 20 45 92 74 (mobile)