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On 8 March the world will mark International Women’s Day. This year’s theme ‘gender parity’ is a timely reminder for public health professionals that women in low- and middle-income countries are a prime target for the tobacco industry. Smoking rates amongst this group are as yet comparatively low compared with rates of smoking amongst men, but aggressively targeted marketing aims to increase this figure.

Faced with the advancement of global tobacco control policy, the tobacco industry is fighting on all fronts to safeguard the future of its traditional business. As consumers, this group of women offers an increasingly rare market opportunity in countries where public health policy is not yet strong enough to protect them. The industry’s compelling message to women associates smoking with glamour, independence and being slim, through high-end advertising and packaging styled like beauty products.

In Europe we are now seeing the legacy of unfettered tobacco industry marketing that targets women – millions of lives ruined by cancer and heart disease. In Denmark in 2010, for example, 20 percent of all female deaths were attributable to smoking. We still have the opportunity to prevent this devastating pattern from repeating throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.

We are working to achieve just this. Since 2007 we have been partnering with governments and civil society in low- and middle-income countries with the highest prevalence of tobacco use, to introduce and implement measures proven to encourage users to quit and prevent young people taking up the habit. These include comprehensive bans on advertising and promotion of tobacco, increasing taxes to make tobacco less affordable and introducing bans on smoking in workplaces and public spaces.

At our Union World Conference on Lung Health in Cape Town last December, our staff, members and grantees were amongst eminent panels of experts presenting research on the tobacco industry’s gender agenda, some of which was startling. If you missed them, you can watch videos of the sessions here: Inequalities, women and tobacco consumption; Women, smokeless tobacco and hookah use.

Article 4.2 of the WHO FCTC states that parties: ‘need to take measures to address gender-specific risks when developing tobacco control strategies.’ As yet very few countries have done this.

We cannot afford to be complacent. Earlier this month new figures from the UK, which has a comprehensive tobacco control programme, revealed the first increase in smoking rates amongst young women since 2008. A week later Selfridges, one of the country’s major department stores, launched a multi-platform marketing campaign for a new range of ‘Smokin’ Hot’ designer wear, complete with iPhone cases and handbags shaped like cigarette packets and clothing featuring cigarettes dangling from pairs of red lips.

Given the tobacco industry’s aggressive efforts to target women, International Women’s Day is the perfect time to re-state The Union’s strong commitment to taking equal and opposite action.

José Luis Castro, Executive Director

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