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Study Says Female Smokers Targeted

A recent content analysis of tobacco-industry documents suggests that cigarette companies intentionally targeted female smokers through cigarette design—creating both aesthetic feminine appeal and illusions of reduced health risks.

The study, published by Harvard School of Public Health (SPH) research analysts in the June 2005 issue of the journal ADDICTION, is part of a new field of resear=ch on industry documents made public by the Tobacco Master Settlement agreement in 1998.

“These findings should be considered when policy makers design cigarette prevention programs,” said lead author Carrie M. Carpenter of the SPH Tobacco Control Research and Training Program. “We know that targeting by the industry has increased cigarette use in women, and this is especially worrisome in developing countries where the rate of female smoking is expected to rise.”

While previous research indicated that tobacco companies marketed their products to women, this study focused on the industry’s efforts to attract female smokers through the design of cigarettes themselves—including their shape, color, and taste.

“We found that the industry conducted extended research on the psychological aspect of product preference to aggressively target female smokers in their product design,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter and her team found that cigarettes were designed in long, thin styles to create feminine appeal. The industry exploited the common misconception that these products were safer than regular cigarettes—one reason women tend to choose the slim styles. These cigarettes also matched female taste preferences, with a mild flavor and easy smoke draw.

A 1987 report from Philip Morris revealed the company’s intent to use its long and slim cigarette design as a false signal of a healthier product.

“Most smokers have little notion of their brand’s tar and nicotine levels,” the 1987 report reads. “Perception is more important than reality, and in this case the perception is of reduced tobacco consumption.”

An editorial that accompanied the study in ADDICTION criticizes the tobacco industry for its exploitation of slim-cigarette consumers’ misconceptions about the product’s health risks.

“How unfortunate that the industry used these findings to exploit women and not help them,” Jack E. Henningfield wrote with his colleagues at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The study finds that the industry targeted all females but made special efforts to promote smoking among 18-to-24-year-old women.

The study explains that 18-to-24-year olds are especially vulnerable to “peer pressure, acceptance among social groups, and looking more mature.” To capture this market, companies focused on “visual (color), taste (via flavors) and aroma variations.”

Carpenter and her team traced the evolution of cigarette product design from the 1970s to the present. They found that female-specific brands, like Virginia Slims, constitute a much smaller percentage of the female market today than they did for previous generations. Instead, Carpenter said that cigarette companies are making light styles of cigarettes within existing brands to attract female smokers.

“While the tobacco industry continues to target female smokers today, their current strategies are more multi-faceted and less readily identifiable than they were decades ago,” reads the study.

Carpenter hopes the study will lead to future research and the creation of prevention programs designed with product influences in mind.

“I think the targeting of different groups of women deserves attention and that the health effects of design changes needs future research,” said Carpenter. “Public-health agencies need to look at these when designing prevention policies to protect women.”

In the developing world, Carpenter’s main concern, female smoking rates are expected to rise to 20 percent by 2025. As the cigarette market expands in these countries, other research has predicted, there will be a corresponding rise in related diseases among women.

—Staff writer Carolyn A. Sheehan can be reached at csheehan@fas.harvard.edu.

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