You’re Going Too Far, Baby

Activists Cry Foul as Cigarette Makers Woo Women in the Developing World

No matter where they live, women who succumb to such merchandising face plenty of trouble. "One of the saddest things we've learned," says Myers, referring to the 50-year sweep of smoking through the U.S. and Europe, and into Mediterranean countries, "is that as women smoke like men, they die like men." Lung cancer and heart disease rates for women are exploding throughout the developed world. In the U.S., lung cancer has surpassed breast cancer as a leading killer of women. Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives have an increased risk of strokes and cancer, and "low-tar" and "light" cigarettes—brands marketed almost exclusively to women—can cause very rare and malevolent carcinomas in lung tissue. Women smokers have a higher risk of osteoporosis and cervical cancer, not to mention complications with fertility and pregnancy.

Tobacco-related illnesses already cost the global economy an estimated $200 billion a year—and this without the added burden of several hundred million women and child smokers in the third world. Fearful of where that number could be in 20 years, the World Bank, an institution that traditionally has supported multinational tobacco companies, has begun to rethink its policies. In a report issued earlier this year, Curbing the Epidemic, the World Bank found that a "falling demand for tobacco does not mean a fall in a country's total employment level," subverting an oft repeated claim by tobacco companies that millions of farmers and businesses are dependent on their products.

The World Health Organization—which just released a study showing tobacco companies spent years working to undermine its antismoking campaigns—is also getting into the act. Attendees at this week's conference will spend much of their time hammering out details for WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control—a treaty that WHO hopes will eventually be signed by all 191 members of its governing body. It will attempt to restrict advertising, but above all it will try to force manufacturers to fully disclose the dangers of smoking. If cigarette companies violate these regulations, they can be held accountable—as they are beginning to be in the U.S., where a Miami jury recently decreed that five tobacco companies pay $145 billion in punitive damages to sick Florida smokers.

"Be You": an ad aimed at Asian women.
"Be You": an ad aimed at Asian women.

Someday, perhaps, that farmer in Burkina Faso will be sufficiently empowered to sue. "It has not escaped our attention," says Kaufman, "that the tobacco industry is expanding in locations where the litigation of individual rights is very limited. The industry thinks it won't be facing lawsuits from women in these countries for a very long time—if ever. But we think they are wrong. That's what this conference is about."

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