The Politics of Women's Health
Our Health Versus Their Profits: The Lure of Smoking Continues for Girls
Three years ago, as we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Our Bodies, Ourselves and reflected back upon both the accomplishments and setbacks of the Women's Health Movement, we definitely could not say "we've come a long way, baby," when it comes to women, girls, and smoking. Understanding why this is so, and crafting strategies which will help young women avoid this deadly habit remain central challenges to all who are concerned with the health and well-being of girls and women.
Most young girls know that smoking is "bad," even if they don't know the complete litany of problems attributable to smoking. But the reasons to smoke are often a more powerful draw than all the warnings about addiction, lung disease, low birth weight babies, and premature births. Diseases - and even pregnancy - often seem like pretty remote possibilities to young teens, who are much more concerned with dieting and being thin than with protecting their long-term health. Not surprisingly - although smoking rates have been on the decline for many years - the rates are now rising among teen girls in many communities.
Helping girls to understand and to resist what lures them into the habit to begin with is one critical piece of "consciousness-raising" that can involve each and every one of us - parent, peer, teacher, or coworker. Reasons women give for why they started smoking vary and include the following:
- Smoking helped them to deal with stress at work or at school
- Smoking suppressed their appetite (in a culture obsessed with thinness, cigarettes are particularly attractive to women who are constantly dieting)
- Friends or family members smoke (peer and family influences)
Advertising images also play a key role, although we tend not to be as aware of the influence of advertising. Two excellent videos address this issue and can serve as a marvelous consciousness-raiser and springboard for discussion in schools and community groups.
Once lured into smoking, women have a harder time quitting than men do. And since over 90% of all female smokers start in their teens, it is critically important to reach teen girls with compelling reasons not to start smoking. At all levels - the family, local community, national, and global - women need to play a more active role in tobacco control efforts. Here are several concrete examples of the things we can do:
- Arrange a showing of "Redefining Liberation" or "Pack of Lies," followed by a discussion. The former, available for only $10 from the National NOW Foundation (1000 16th St. NW #700, Washington, DC 20036), is an excellent expose of the destructive effects of tobacco, alcohol and fashion industry advertising. The latter film, which features Jean Kilbourne, exposes the tobacco industry's seductive advertising gimmicks geared especially to women. In particular, the film underscores how tobacco advertising exploits the cultural obsession with thinness and often equates athletic prowess with smoking. Helping girls better understand how the advertising media are used to manipulate their interests and behavior can be a first step towards their rejection of a deadly habit.
- Point out how African-American community leaders protested the advertising campaigns which targeted African-Americans - especially younger people - and succeeded in halting this marketing strategy. Point out how Leslie Nuchow, Indigo Girls, and other popular singers have launched a counter-campaign - "Virginia SLAM!" - to the tobacco industry's "A Woman Thing" campaign.
- Encourage discussion between teen smokers and non-smokers. Sometimes, the personal account of a woman who unsuccessfully tried to quit smoking during pregnancy is a more compelling reminder of tobacco's addictive potential than all the lecturing by a non-smoker. Also, include mention of problems such as the premature wrinkling of skin and the discoloration of teeth. These are sometimes more compelling concerns than the need to protect one's "future" health.
- Raise awareness of how the tobacco industry has donated generously to women's organizations, as well as to women's athletic events and competitions. Young women are quick to understand why organizations might not "bite the hand" that feeds them and develop greater appreciation for the powerful influences of funding sources. On occasion, girls have created a classroom project involving letter-writing to all the major women's magazines that carry tobacco ads. Again, seeing the inverse relation between how much tobacco revenue is received and how many articles critical of smoking are printed provides valuable consciousness-raising.
- Ask your local schools to provide teacher training on the matter of body image and health problems associated with chronic dieting. (This would also address the issue of eating disorders.)
Support the national organizations which have taken strong stands on this issue (e.g., Action on Smoking and Health, the American Public Health Association, the National Women's Health Network, the American Medical Women's Association, and - most recently - NOW). Contributions of time and/or money can make a big difference.
- Raise awareness at the global level about the unethical marketing practices of multinational tobacco companies in developing countries. Why, for example, should a Philippine public interest group have to sue Philip Morris to obtain health warnings on cigarette packages? A Japanese women's group reported that stepped-up ad campaigns by Philip Morris and RJR Reynolds have targeted primarily women and children, who have had relatively low smoking rates up to this point.
Women's health advocacy is needed more than ever, both to help smokers quit and, more importantly, to prevent girls and women from becoming addicted to tobacco in the first place. Think about what you and your community might do to help women better understand the links between smoking and body image, between the "media message" and corporate greed. This is an arena where the feminist lens can bring greater clarity to several issues that have a profound impact on women's health and well-being.
Written by: Judy Norsigian. Previously published in Sojourner: The Women's Newspaper
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