More Women Smoke When Their Lot Improves, Study Finds
A study of 74 countries by Canadian researchers found that as women acquire improved status, they’re more likely to take up smoking and risk smoking-related health problems, Reuters reported Mar. 1.
Sarah Hitchman and Geoffrey Fong of the University of Waterloo found that in countries where women are less empowered, such as China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Uganda, men were five times as likely to smoke as women were. In China, an estimated 61 percent of men smoke, versus 4.2 percent of women.
By contrast, in countries where women were more empowered, such as Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden and the United States, Hitchman and Fong found little difference in male and female smoking rates. (They measured empowerment with data such as “representation in parliament, voting rights, and comparisons of male and female income.”)
Douglas Bettcher, the director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) tobacco initiative, said that public health campaigns were needed to reverse the rising trend of female smoking in developing countries.
“The tobacco epidemic is still in its early stages in many countries but is expected to worsen,” he wrote in a statement. “Strong tobacco control measures such as bans on tobacco advertising are needed to prevent the tobacco industry from targeting women.”
According to Reuters, “[t]obacco kills up to half its users and is described by the WHO [as] ’one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced.’” It kills over five million people every year – a total that is expected to exceed eight million by 2030 if smoking rates go unchecked.
Fong said that gender-specific anti-tobacco activities were needed. Hitchman added that a close look should be taken at “the ways in which the tobacco industry is capitalizing on societal changes to target women, such as marketing cigarettes to women as a symbol of emancipation.” She said that more research into why women started smoking was needed.
Vikram Pathanaia of the London School of Economics agreed, in an editorial commenting on the study. “Ironically,” he wrote, “it may be cigarette marketers who currently have the best understanding of what induces women to experiment with and eventually adopt smoking!”
The study, “Gender empowerment and female-to-male smoking prevalence ratios,” was published in the March 2011 issue of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.