Is Cigarette Smoking an Unhealthy Side Effect of Women's Empowerment?

Cristen Conger

Is there an unhealthy side effect to getting women out of the house and into the workforce? According to a Reuters report (via HuffPo), yes. Researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) have noticed a correlation between the rate of female employment and cigarette smoking in developing countries.

Long story short: the more women work, the more women smoke cigarettes.

From Reuters:

An analysis in 74 countries found that men are five times more likely to smoke than women in countries with lower rates of female empowerment, such as China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uganda. In countries with relatively high female empowerment, such as Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden and the United States, this gap is small and women smoke almost as much as men do.

So maybe women are better off at home, right? I kid!

NGOs tackling this "tobacco epidemic" are investigating gender-targeted anti-smoking approaches. In addition to helping women in the developing world kick the habit, they also want to curb cigarette manufacturers' attempts to market smoking toward women as a sign of empowerment. If that "hey working gals, smoking is cool" approach sounds absurd, don't laugh too hard. Remember the vintage Virginia Slims slogan that co-opted second-wave feminism to pedal their long-stemmed smokes? Does "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" ring a bell?

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While I'm all for anti-smoking campaigns, the only rub with this Reuters report is that it points out this fun fact then jumps right back to women: five times more men smoke cigarettes worldwide than women. Yet suddenly, once women pick up the habit, the alarm bells go off. Healthcare providers and the media have taken this same approach with the rising rate of alcohol consumption among women -- which, not surprisingly, is also linked to us working long hours and embracing feminism (?!).

Yes, women are drinking and, at least in the developing world, smoking more than they used to. But what about men's more severe and widespread tobacco and alcohol addiction? If their bad habits aren't continually linked with concepts of "empowerment" and climbing the ladder, then why must ours?

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