Malaysia is seeing an increase of female smokers with those lighting up for the first time getting younger.
“Schoolgirls who pick up a cigarette for the very first time are often driven by peer pressure, and it is vital that we reach out to them to offer our support and expertise to help them kick the habit,” said Respiratory Medical Institute Head Datin Dr Aziah Ahmad Mahayiddin at the World No Tobacco Day 2010 celebration held at the institute here recently.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), women make up about 20% of the world’s estimated 1 billion smokers.
That is about 200 million women and counting, as the epidemic of tobacco use among women is increasing in some countries.
In Malaysia, the 2006 National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS) showed that adolescent girls between ages 13 and 18 tend to start smoking at the average age of 14.1 years, only a slight difference to boys who start lighting up at 13.6 years
WHO statistic reveals a more somber picture. Across the world, some 600,000 deaths a year are caused by exposure to second-hand smoke with 64% of the deaths being women.
Dr Aziah said women are the biggest target group of the tobacco industry today because they are viewed as “unexplored potentials”.
“Women today are more socially advanced, educated and successful in their careers. They have better purchasing powers and have more freedom in making decisions compared to yesterday. So if the marketing techniques hit the right spot, they feel they can take up smoking anytime they please,” she said.
Tobacco companies understand this and bombard women with seductive advertising to make them believe that smoking cigarettes are a symbol of their freedom, emancipation, glamour and sex appeal.
Ironically, those marketing techniques are tailored to milk on female insecurities such as the need to stay slim, look stylish and to be on “equal footing” with their male counterparts.
“There is no beauty or sophistication in smoking. What is evident is only the ugliness and the diseases it brings,” said Deputy Health Minister Datuk Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin, who opened the World No Tobacco Day celebration.
She said women are often fed with cigarette advertisements featuring slender models, as if to insinuate that smoking is a way of “dieting”.
“However, these ads fail to inform to horrible health problems that comes with smoking,” she said.
She said that while there are far more men than women who smoke, women bear the heavier responsibility of maintaining optimum health if they plan to become mothers and care for their children.
The emphasis on women who smoke came after a global concern that women smokers are increasing and the hazards that it brings are far worse than those affecting men.
In echoing Rosnah’s sentiments, Dr Aziah said: “Exposure to cigarettes affects women more adversely than men. Besides cancer and heart and respiratory diseases, women will also suffer fertility problems and face risks during pregnancy and delivery.”
She said risks of miscarriages, premature births and delivering stillborns are much higher among women who smoke during pregnancy. Smoking also increases the risks of women to be afflicted with cervical and breast cancer before reaching menopause.
Women are also at higher risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, which kills more people worldwide than HIV/AIDS and more than lung and breast cancer combined, each year.
Meanwhile, Dr Aziah said that the NHMS in 2006 reported that out of the 2.7 million passive smokers in Malaysia aged 18 and above, female smokers make up some 24%.
The survey, conducted every 10 years, also revealed that of the 5 million of current smokers in Malaysia, 0.7% are girls aged 13 to 18 or 35,000.
Dr Aziah said that another threat to women is the exposure to cigarette smoke by other smokers, especially from men. The survey showed that there are over 2.7 million passive smokers in Malaysia, with women making up the large bulk of it at 23.8%.