Countdown to standard packaging — how the tobacco industry uses packaging to target women and girls

The tobacco industry uses cigarette packaging as a marketing opportunity. In order to entice the next generation of smokers, brands like Silk Cut produced a line of Superslims which were developed to target to women and teenage girls. The new rules on standardised “plain” packaging puts a stop to these techniques in the UK. For more, read our factsheet here.

For a long time, tobacco marketing largely ignored women. Smoking among women was relatively uncommon and carried lots of subtle stigma. Women that smoked, it was thought, were of questionable virtue. This changed in the 1920s when the tobacco industry realised the vast profits to be made from half of the population. Tobacco advertising targeted at women has consistently tried to prey upon their insecurities, especially around weight.

The Silk Cut Superslims lipstick pack

One of the most recent, and insidious examples, is shown above. This is a “lipstick pack” of Silk Cut Superslims, produced by Japan Tobacco International.

The packaging of this particular product reinforces the (false) correlation between smoking and being thin. It was launched in 2008, just as ASH began campaigning for standardised plain packaging. As pictured above, the Superslims pack is made to resemble that of a lipstick — tall, thin, and with an elegant silver and purple design. The cigarettes themselves are longer and thinner to give a lighter, more ‘feminine’ impression. Its ultimate goal is to spin a deadly habit into a glamourous, health-conscious luxury. They are clearly tapping into the insecurities of women and teenage girls through the promotion of superslim cigarettes as a path to weight loss.

At the time of their launch Deborah Arnott, ASH Chief Executive, said: “Silk Cut is using the terminology ‘super slim’ to make the link between smoking their product and losing weight. Like a dog whistle that is inaudible to humans, this message is only heard by those it’s aimed at: in this case girls anxious about their weight and desperate to stay slim. It’s despicable for the industry to target vulnerable young women in this way.”

A 2016 study published in The BMJ demonstrates that lipstick-style superslim cigarettes and their packaging are perceived the most positively and rated the most appealing among female non-smokers or occasional smokers aged 12–24. Due to their smaller size, they are seen as less harmful. The lipstick-style packaging lead participants to rate the health risks associated with smoking these cigarettes as “less serious” as the health warnings are more difficult to read and the small pack size means the warnings are not displayed properly. The study concluded that such packs increase the appeal of smoking, mislead consumers about the level of harm smoking causes, and undermine the on-pack health warnings.

Typical early tobacco advert targeting women

This isn’t a new method; women have been the targets of tobacco companies’ marketing as early as the 1920’s. In 1928 the President of American Tobacco said: “It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard”. But to mine that gold they needed to create new and acceptable social meanings for female smoking, which hitherto had been associated with prostitution and louche women. So, a main focus of such campaigning focuses in on a cigarette’s ‘ability’ to promote weight loss. Advertising campaigns subsequently utilised catchphrases such as “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” to encourage women to take up smoking. 
 
The new rules being implemented this weekend by the UK prohibit these lipstick packs, while making the colour and design illegal too. But in many countries around the world such tactics are still widespread. As a world leader in tobacco regulation, it is important that the UK extends support to other countries who wish to adopt similar legislation to fight the global tobacco epidemic. We must continue to #ActOnTobacco and protect girls and young women from such toxic and damaging marketing practice.