“Mild As May, with Red Tips for Your Pretty Lips”
How Tobacco Companies Sold Women a Pack of Lies

This exhibition traces the history of efforts by the tobacco industry to encourage women to smoke cigarettes. At the turn of the 20th century, cigarette smoking was socially unacceptable for women but was gaining a foothold with American men, who still preferred cigars. Lucy Paige Gaston, founder of the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League, decried smoking by women on the grounds that it undermined family values and the moral fabric of society The potential for widespread adoption of smoking by women occasioned public alarm. New York City’s Sullivan Ordinance of 1908 made it unlawful for women to smoke in public, but the ban was largely ignored.

Given the social climate of opposition to smoking by women, advertisers refrained from copy that suggested an appeal to women. Not until 1919 did a cigarette maker (Lorillard) sponsor a series of advertisements in magazines and newspapers with images of chic women–as distinct from the risque images of women that had long adorned cigar boxes and souvenir trading cards in cigarette packs. World War I changed everything. American tobacco companies supplied unending cartons of cigarettes to the boys in the trenches, while at home women began smoking in public.

Cigarette smoking made inroads among social trendsetters in the 1920s. By 1923, 5% of cigarettes were consumed by women, increasing to 12% by 1929. Still, cigarette manufacturers were concerned about a prohibitionistic backlash and mostly refrained from promoting their product directly to women. An early exception was the 1927 campaign for Marlboro cigarettes in women’s fashion magazines with the theme, “Mild as May.” The most renowned advertising campaign of the period directed at women was the association of cigarette smoking with staying slim. Launched in 1928, American Tobacco Company’s “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” slogan brought on much hue and cry, especially from the candy industry.

By World War II, one third of American women smoked cigarettes. As a result, the prevalence of lung cancer in women also increased. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. famously observed on January 11, 1979 (the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of the landmark US Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health) that now “women who smoke like men die like men who smoke.” By 1986, deaths from lung cancer in women had surpassed those of breast cancer, and by the early-200s more cases of lung cancer were being diagnosed in women than in men.

Alan Blum, MD
The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society

(Text adapted in part from “Mixed messages for women: A social history of cigarette smoking and advertising,” by Virginia L. Ernster, Phd, published in the New Your State Journal of Medicine, July 1985, pages 335-341.)