Farida Akhter

Women: the targeted but invisible victims of tobacco

May 31, 2011

Smoking CigaretteTobacco consumption and anti-tobacco campaign have so far been limited to men only. Women were seen neither as victims nor active users of tobacco products. The women’s movement has also ignored the issue. On the contrary, some form of feminism (not all) has been associated with smoking as being a sign of smartness and self assertion as for men trying to look intellectual and ‘manly’. But this is no more the case.

Nowadays in public, a smoker cannot declare his/her smoking as a good habit.  The ‘No Smoking’ signs in important public places, especially at the airports, airlines, meeting places etc. make it clear that smoking is no more accepted.

The recent development in the global anti-tobacco campaign is that women are becoming targets of the tobacco companies. The World Health Organization (WHO) had expressed concern last year, on the World No Tobacco Day, 2010 in this regard. The message from Dr. Samlee Plianbang, the Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, on the occasion of the World No Tobacco Day, 2010 raised alarm as according to him, ‘women have become the major target of the tobacco industry in its campaign to recruit new users to replace those who die prematurely from tobacco related illnesses’.

WHO has termed this targeting of women as the ‘largest unexploited market’. For example in Bangladesh, an estimated number of 57,000 people (presumably mostly men) die due to tobacco consumption. So these many numbers of women have to be recruited as new smokers so that the tobacco companies do not incur any loss of revenue. According to Dr. Samlee Plianbang, south-east Asia region is the fastest growing markets for tobacco consumption, mostly among women.

In this region, the youth comprises the majority of the population. So the tobacco companies are targeting the youth and particularly young women in the universities and those in the job market. The Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) conducted in 2006-2009 reveals that one in ten school girls use tobacco, largely, in its smokeless form. Of current female tobacco users in Bangladesh, 95 percent use smokeless products such as zarda, gul, etc.

In a report published by lanka business online (26 May, 2010), a 25-year-old Bangladeshi female smoker was quoted. This girl used to smoke a pack per-day, but is trying to quit on her doctor’s advice. She said, ‘I have seen tobacco companies’ marketing campaigns on my university campus and in residential dormitories. They approach students with a questionnaire and ask them to fill it in to win T-shirts or lighters’. She started smoking as her friends in class at Dhaka University all smoked.

The lanka business online also quoted Mary Asunta, Director of International Tobacco Control Project saying ‘the rise is largely because more Asian women are entering the workforce, have disposable income and see smoking as modern and liberated’. She said that the tobacco companies are targeting women in Asia with marketing strategies such as with lipstick type cigarette packs in Indonesia, Malaysia and Laos. The pretty, small packets of ultra thin cigarettes are designed as something women would like to carry around with her at all times, just like her lipstick. Cigarette packs are coloured pink and there are even fruit flavoured cigarettes!

According to the ‘Deadly in Pink’ information sheet of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington based tobacco control organisation, the tobacco industry has long history of developing cigarette brands and marketing campaigns that target women and girls, with devastating  consequences for women’s health. In the years 2007 to 2009, the industry launched its most aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at women.

This shows that the cigarette companies have no respect for women. They think these women are stupid and can be deceived by pink colour and fruit flavours. In Bangladesh, we have found long thin packs of cigarettes sold for women even in districts like Tangail. So the marketing strategies of the tobacco companies targeting women are not restricted to Dhaka only, but have spread in district level towns as well!

So, in Bangladesh women are users as well as victims of tobacco products. They are still much less in number as smokers (1.5 percent among the 21.9 million adult smokers) but they are more in number as users of smokeless tobacco (27.9 percent among the 25.9 million adults) according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) fact sheet Bangladesh 2009. However, women cannot save themselves by not smoking or using tobacco products. They are often the victims of passive smoking. As victims of second-hand smoking, women accounts for 30.4 percent in the workplace and 20.8 percent at any public places.

The health hazards due to smoking and passive smoking are hardly recorded and dealt with, although there are many evidences of cancer, lung diseases, heart problems and many gynaecological problems that women suffer from. Besides as users of smokeless tobacco products, the health hazards are becoming visible. So it is clearly a public health issue which is ignored in the National Health Policy, Women’s Development Policy and Tobacco Control Law.

Not only as users of tobacco products, women also face problems in tobacco cultivation and bidi production. Tobacco cultivation is carried out by male farmers; women and children are used as family labour during different stages in the cultivation season and particularly at the time of curing of tobacco leaves. Theirs is the unpaid labour, the cost is not included in tobacco farming accounting, and the subsequent impact on their health is not recorded either. Women work in the bidi factories as cheap labour and exploited labour and are exposed to various health hazards.

Due to tobacco cultivation in the food crop land and use of trees as fuel for curing of tobacco have resulted in lack of availability of food. Women and children are severely affected by lack of nutritious food in the family, lack of fruit trees in their homestead and also due to lack of livestock and poultry keeping. Excessive use of pesticides prevents poultry keeping, and also collection of fodder for the cows. The uncultivated sources of food are depleting leaving the poorer families dependent only on cash to buy food.

Women spend sleepless night for over 70 hours at a stretch to make sure that the leaf curing is perfect for grades to be good. After selling of the leaves, women become vulnerable for unhappy family situation because of the loss faced by the head of the family from the tobacco company. Women have felt redundant in terms of using their knowledge in farming, seed keeping, post harvesting works and overall involvement in food production.

Rahima Khatun from Daulatpur Kushtia said, ‘Men in our families get allured by cash income earned from tobacco. They see large amount of cash which they receive after selling the leaves. But soon this money is spent for treatment of diseases that the family members suffer, paying for the debts, managing food costs as every food item has to be bought. At one point, we do not have money anymore. The husbands sell the jewelleries of their wives to meet the cost. If this goes on, I am afraid they will even sell their wives!’

Women are usually not attracted by the ‘cash’ earned after selling tobacco leaves in April-May. What they see is that this money goes back to the company for paying debts, to the doctor for treatment and for some luxury goods for consumption of men in the family such as mobile phone, motorcycle, etc. After getting good amount of cash money, some tobacco growers build their houses with bricks, but they can hardly manage the money to put cement plaster on them.

The situation is undoubtedly alarming. As the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005 law is going to be amended soon in the National Parliament, women’s concerns must be incorporated. It is good that women’s groups have taken up the issue and formed an alliance called Tamak Birodhi Nari Jote (TABINAJ). It is the abbreviated bangla version of the “Anti-Tobacco Women’s Alliance.”

Besides the budget session of the national parliament is very important to demand for increased taxes on tobacco products, particularly those used by women and the poorer people. It is a well acknowledged fact that higher price of tobacco products has some impact on its usage. The arguments of losing jobs of female workers in bidi factories is ridiculous, because these are not jobs for them, rather these are the ‘death traps’ where women are continuously getting exposed to tobacco related hazards and suffer from diseases and die without any treatment.

We need to protect women workers by providing alternative employment opportunities and not take the excuse of using them in bidi factories to keep the profit of the companies growing. The government must take initiatives and act now.

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Farida Akhter is an activist in women’s movement, environment and health issues, and also the executive director of UBINIG and founding member of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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One Response to “ Women: the targeted but invisible victims of tobacco ”

  1. sabina absar on June 17, 2011 at 2:32 am

    This article reminds us of the importance of awareness level to be raised for preventing diseases that we carelessly increase due to our ignorance and whimsical decisions. Moreover, our rights are exploited and denied because of our poor economic situation and our lack of knowledge of our rights. We need to say “NO” when we feel we are being exploited and our rights denied. Our future generation needs to survive through all the difficulties with boldness.

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