Despite the recent groundbreaking case in which a Florida court ordered Brown & Williamson to pay $750,000 in damages to a 66-year-old man who had developed lung cancer, tobacco companies in the United States, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom, are still aggressively targeting consumers through advertising.
Though overall smoking rates are falling, the number of young people and women who smoke is rising. This month, the British Medical Journal published the results of a survey of 7,772 16-year-olds that showed that smoking is on the increase among girls but not boys. Meanwhile in the USA, President Clinton last week declared that tobacco is "the number one public health concern for this country and for its young people" and announced proposals to limit the access of minors to tobacco.
The teenage, even pre-teen, market is big business: according to the US Consumer Reports magazine, children under 18 in the US smoke an estimated 17 billion of the 500 billion cigarettes sold each year. A high proportion are girls who associate smoking with weight loss, social acceptance and independence. Older women are also affected by the notion that smoking makes you slim and sophisticated. When US companies went on a "recruitment" drive to capture female smokers in the early 1990s, Donald White, a marketing consultant for Brown & Williamson, admitted: "Women smokers are more driven by lifestyle and image campaigns."
American advertisements for Virginia Slims, the first cigarette designed and marketed specifically for women, have been promoting a particular lifestyle since the late 1960s, when its "you've come a long way, baby" campaign connected smoking with women's liberation, turning a new female generation on to cigarettes. By the early 1990s it had taken into account "post-feminist" irony with the picture of a sparkling blonde straddling a motorcycle over the quote: "I don't necessarily want to run the world, but I wouldn't mind taking it for a ride."
Its present slogan is closely linked to the feel-good solidarity of a Hollywood female buddy movie. Mandy Merck, a lecturer in Media Studies at Sussex University, says: ''It's a woman thing implies that you can share this culture of smoking with your friends. Smokers adore each other - shared vices and addictions make great bonding experiences,"
By contrast Capri, one of Virginia Slims' main competitors, has opted for an image of "classic" femininity. Its campaign shows a woman in a silky evening gown, a long, thin cigarette poised elegantly between her fingers, and the line: "She's gone to Capri and she's not coming back.
"That's the residual association of cigarettes with the upper-class jet set who travel to Europe. They have slim, thin, tall cigarettes to match the slim, thin image of aristocracy. It's ill-informed in the American way, because going to Capri is probably not a particularly difficult or sophisticated thing for us in England," says Merck.
Other female brands include Dakota, aimed at "virile females with a high-school education", and Misty, which, with its "Light 'n Sassy ... Light Price, too", features a girl who looks barely out of her teens grinning and clutching a cigarette. Not only will these make you slim, the advertisement implies, but they come at a budget price too - a consideration clearly aimed at young and working-class women smokers.
Despite the explicit nature of these advertisements, they are regularly featured in glossy US women's titles. Linda Wells, editor of New York's Allure, defends the policy of her magazine. "I feel women should be able to make their own decisions," she says "I don't like anything that feels like propaganda." Her publisher, Sandy Golinkin, agrees, saying: "There is no advertisement I have not accepted yet. I have never known the tobacco industry to run anything overwhelmingly controversial." Their view is typical in the US, where strict tobacco advertising regulations would be considered an infringement of personal freedom. John Kamp, senior vice president of AAAA, the US trade association for advertising agencies said anti-tobacco groups opposed the targeting of women, "But we'd say this is a society where women are just as strong, smart and able to make their own decisions as men are.
In Britain, regulations are much more rigorously enforced,with a code drawn up by the Department of Health, the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association and the ASA that rules: "Advertisements should never suggest that smoking is safe, healthy, natural ... or popular in all circumstances."
"A picture of a woman smoking all over her bloke and looking fantastic now just seems odd, a bit disgusting somehow," remarks Eliza Parker of Gotham UK, a London agency that has no tobacco accounts. "In Britain our advertisements have to be cleverer, more a series of symbols or intelligent visual puns." Because British tobacco advertising is more oblique, it is less obviously targeted at one gender.
Colin Stockall, spokesmanfor Gallaher, the company that manufactures several UK brands, including Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut, agrees that "none of our advertising is aimed specifically at men or women. The Silk Cut campaign, for instance, speaks for itself. We let the images tell the story,"
Consumers of B&H and Silk Cut break down roughly 50/50 men and women, and combined constitute a quarter of the market. It is debatable, though, whether Silk Cut is wholly non-gender specific. The two ladders set in purple stockings, for instance, or the cacti stuffed in the purple Wonderbra, seem directly aimed at a female audience.
"I don't think Silk Cut is consistently aimed at women. It may confront women with an idea about themselves, but it's more often a subtle sexual double entendre that has meaning for both sexes," says Lewis Blackwell, editor of Creative Review. "Silk Cut also has dark imagery that gives it associated credibility in youth culture."
It is interesting that the slightly disturbing sense of violence in torn silk and scalpel-cut packaging should have such a strong attraction. "Silk Cut appeals to the woman in everyone, the valetudinarian impulses, the careful, self-protective part in us," claims style commentator Peter York. To him, Marlboro is also a brand that has growing appeal for women. "It once used to be very male orientated, but particularly with Lights, it has become androgynised, moving from acceptable Yuppie territory to a mainstream brand." In Britain, Marlboro no longer features the cowboy, depicting instead a Paris, Texas-type universe of bleached-out desert and tumbleweed. Like Levi jeans, it presents young smokers with a sexy myth of genuine Americana.
"It's makes you think of wide open spaces, the adventure of smoking, the idea that you don't give a damn," says Jane Turner, a smoker in her early thirties. "It says smoking is about being tough and rebellious. Being one of the boys."
As regulations against tobacco advertising become more stringent, it is inevitable that the dated image of the woman with the healthy grin and the skinny cigarette will fade away. Companies are already shifting their focus from magazines and posters to other areas such as sponsorship and the Internet. For the Virginia Slims woman, at last it seems her days are numbered.