The Case Against Virginia Slims

The landmark Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, released in 1964 by Dr. Luther Terry, was intended to dispel all lingering doubts about cigarette smoking as a leading cause of death and disease–and to set the stage for campaigns by the federal government and the American Cancer Society to encourage adults to stop smoking and to educate teenagers never to start. Undeterred, cigarette maker Philip Morris, which in the 1950s had transformed its flailing Marlboro cigarette brand from the essence of femininity (“Mild as May–Red Tips to Match Your Pretty Lips”) into the image of rugged masculinity (and the most popular cigarette among men by 1964), determined to recapture the women’s market. Thus, just as the first anti-smoking messages were beginning to appear on TV in the late-1960s, Philip Morris was seeking to tie the women’s liberation movement to its newest brand, Virginia Slims, with far more eye-catching commercials. With the announcement in 1970 of Virginia Slims’ sponsorship of the women’s professional tennis tour, the die was cast for devastating health consequences among women for decades to come. While smoking rates among men began slowly declining in the 1970s, women’s smoking rates continued to rise. By 1987, lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Although lung cancer rates among men have been declining for the past 20 years, lung cancer among women has not declined. Today more cases of lung cancer are identified in women than men. The evidence of Philip Morris’ cynical and successful targeting of women with Virginia Slims was documented in detail in the two theme issues on the world cigarette pandemic published by the New York State Journal of Medicine in 1983 and 1985. This section includes several articles from those issues, the first of which was republished in 1985 as The Cigarette Underworld (Secaucus: Lyle Stuart).

Click the image of the articles to view enlarged PDFs