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How Have Tobacco Companies Encouraged Women to Smoke?

Tobacco companies have historically targeted women through ads that equate smoking with independence, glamour, and weight control. By exploiting social movements and fashion trends, they've crafted a narrative that smoking is both a symbol of liberation and a beauty accessory. How might these tactics have evolved with today's social media landscape? Join the conversation and uncover the modern spin on an old strategy.

Most Americans know how hard women have had to fight to gain equality, but what they might not know is that in the early 1900s, women had a powerful (if not particularly altruistic) ally: Big Tobacco. While cigarette smoking was de rigueur for men at the time, if a woman wanted to smoke, she had to do it in private. That is, until Edward Bernays stepped in on behalf of the American Tobacco Company.

Bernays, now considered one of the great pillars of 20th-century advertising and marketing, was tasked with getting tobacco into the hands of the half of America that wasn't supposed to have it: women. Bernays came up with the idea of hiring women to march while smoking in New York City's Easter Sunday Parade in 1929. According to Bernays' campaign, the cigarettes were "torches of freedom" that symbolized female emancipation and equality with men, and they certainly served to light the way, at least towards nicotine addiction. Smoking among women boomed, growing from 5 percent of American women in 1923 to 18 percent in 1935.

Fighting for their rights:

  • Women in America began demanding the right to vote almost 100 years before the 19th Amendment granted it in 1920.

  • Despite strong opposition and even hatred, Elizabeth Blackwell became America's first female doctor, receiving her medical degree in 1849.

  • Many famous abolitionists publicly supported women's rights as well, including William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass.

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    • In the early 1900s, cigarettes were marketed to women as "torches of freedom" to encourage them to smoke in public.
      In the early 1900s, cigarettes were marketed to women as "torches of freedom" to encourage them to smoke in public.