Cigarettes: Back in Style?
By: Kassia Barajas
While the U.S. has seen a 59–66% decline in combustible tobacco usage since 1965, a disturbing recent trend in the fashion industry and among urban young adults is raising concern that cigarettes are coming back, particularly among women. This is no surprise given the fact that tobacco companies spend over $8.2 billion marketing their products every year, and women have long been one of their favorite targets.
In the 1920s, Big Tobacco began connecting deadly products to the ideals of women’s freedom and equality. They also promoted cigarettes as an appetite suppressant to help women lose weight. In the 1960s, tobacco companies went a step further and began producing products specifically “for women” like Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand that launched during the women’s rights movement. These were slimmer than other cigarettes and explicitly designed to fit in women’s purses. As a result of their wildly successful efforts to addict women, female lung cancer deaths increased by more than 400% between 1960 and 1990.
Although women’s smoking rates have been historically lower than men’s, women also have a lower quitting rate. Since 1965, smoking rates for women have decreased 7% slower than men. Women also experience higher cancer rates from smoking than men, specifically lung cancer. Smoking-related diseases are the number one preventable cause of death among women in the U.S., killing more than 200,000 women yearly.
This brings the timeline to the present, where a troubling trend of fashionable youth picking up combustible tobacco has emerged, especially in and around cities like New York and Los Angeles — as noted in several major publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Although smoking has gone in and out of fashion many times, unfortunately, right now it’s “in.” Before the pandemic, the cigarette’s popularity was rapidly declining, with usage hitting 14% and sales at 5.5% in 2019. However, in 2020, that long-term decline stopped cold — and social media is likely complicit. In fact, Truth Initiative found that of 8,000 tobacco-related Instagram posts made within a recent year, 49% included cigarettes and 2/3 of the content contained images of women. Audiences who report viewing tobacco content on social media are twice as likely to report using tobacco. As more influencers post content of themselves smoking, cigarettes become less taboo.
Much like in the past, tobacco and entertainment industries are once again perpetuating the idea that cigarettes make women more attractive. This is evident in the spike of cigarette use in shows and movies like “Stranger Things,” “Top Gun,” “Shameless” and more that make smoking an aesthetic. 64% of the 15 “most binged” shows contained tobacco content, and 38% of the top-grossing movies in 2020 included tobacco depictions. Additionally, 60% of people aged 15–24 found that their favorite new releases featured images of tobacco. This is dangerous because 37% of adolescents who started smoking say it was due to images they saw in movies.
For a time, e-cigarettes were positioned to replace combustible cigarettes as the “it” tobacco products and were falsely marketed as easier, healthier options. Yet recently, many people are discarding their vapes and reaching for cigarettes again due to a variety of factors, including confusion around the health risks.
Although traditional cigarettes may seem to be a more “fashionable” option, the health effects of smoking are anything but fashionable. Smoking can cause infertility and increase your risk of cancer, COPD, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and stroke. If you or someone you know is thinking about quitting tobacco, the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline offers FREE, 24/7 support. Visit OKhelpline.com, call 1-800-QUIT NOW or text READY to 34191 to register.
Kassia Barajas is a junior public relations student at The University of Oklahoma. She is the current public relations intern at the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET).