Prior to the widespread adoption of cigarettes, tobacco was either chewed or smoked in cigars or pipes. The cigarette was considered feminine, an association that would fade with the mass distribution of cigarettes to soldiers in World War I. By the 1930s tobacco companies were giving women equal smoking rights. By the 1940s even children and babies were shown in cigarette advertisements.
Although hundreds of actresses and dozens of women athletes and society women appeared in cigarette advertisements in the the 1930s and 1940s–as well as women serving in all branches of the military and in factories on the home front during World War II–the post-war depiction of women in cigarette advertising was often as a romantic companion to her man, as a newlywed, or even, in one Philip Morris as, as a young mother caressing her baby.
The women’s liberation movement emerged in the late-1960s on the heels of the civil rights movement. Philip Morris seized the moment to introduce a new cigarette brand aimed at the emancipated woman, with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The prevalence of smoking among women, which had always lagged far behind that of men, rapidly accelerated (although the number one cigarette brand smoked by women became the same as that of men: Marlboro).
In 1990, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company chose Houston and Nashville as test markets for a new brand of cigarettes aimed at free-spirited, Marlboro-smoking young women, or “Virile Females” in the words of TRONE, the advertising agency that created the campaign. According to TRONE’s internal marketing plan, Dakota was targeted–on billboards, in full-page newspaper ads, in convenience store displays featuring life-sized denim-and-leather-clad biker babes, and concert sponsorships–to 18-24-year old women who go to tractor pulls with their boyfriends and “identify with the bitches in the soap operas.” In Houston, the campaign was met with a satirical counter-advertising campaign by the medical activist group DOC (Doctors Ought to Care), which purchased a full-page satirical ad in the alt-weekly newspaper Houston Public News and distributed hundreds of bumper stickers with the slogan, “Dakota, DaCough, DaCancer, DaCoffin.” The resulting public ridicule of Dakota–and adverse publicity when Houston’s two daily newspapers refused to publish the same DOC parody ad out of fear of alienating cigarette advertisers–led RJ Reynolds to drop its plan for a national launch of the brand.
At the turn of the 20th century, cigarette smoking was socially unacceptable for women. By the 1920s it had become a symbol of emancipation of women. As women’s smoking rate rose, so did the incidence of lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. Smoking in pregnancy was also found to double the incidence of low birth weight babies, among other adverse effects on mothers and infants. In 1971, Louis Cullman III, the head of Philip Morris, acknowledged that women who smoke have smaller babies on average but added, “Some women would prefer having smaller babies.” On January 11, 1979, at the press conference to release the 15th annual Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Josepha A. Califano, Jr. famously observed, “Women who smoke like men die like men who smoke.” By the mid-1980s, the Connecticut Tumor Registry reported that lung cancer had surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of death from cancer in women. Today more women are diagnosed with lung cancer than men.
Please also view these other CSTS exhibitions related to women and smoking: