Women, Development and Tobacco Control plenary led by a high-level panel on International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day, 8 March, plenary presenters called for equity in tobacco control leadership, for gender and sex to be incorporated into research as standard, and for greater implementation of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Introduced by Dr Flavia Senkubuge – the first black woman to be President of a World Conference on Tobacco or Health – Professor Judith Mackay, senior advisor at Vital Strategies, opened the session with a global overview of women’s relationship to tobacco. She highlighted that smoking rates amongst women are still much lower than men, but that the picture was shifting, with significant increases in use amongst women and girls in some low- and middle-income countries.

“The tobacco industry is manipulating women into bondage, not freedom. They target advertising to attract women, using images of slim and liberated women on packaging and in advertising campaigns. But tobacco addiction is bondage.”

Presenters spoke about the economic impacts of tobacco use on women – not just in healthcare costs resulting from tobacco-related illness, but also in the diversion of family income, from food and education to tobacco. They emphasised that tobacco use drives families into poverty.

Dr Lorraine Greaves, Senior Investigator at the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, Canada focused on the importance of gender equity – through inclusion of sex and gender in all programming and research programmes.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti said: “The tobacco industry views thi region as virgin territory to be exploited. They are targeting women and girls specifically and interfering in the adoption of tobacco control policies that will protect health when properly enforced.”

Dr Moeti called for swifter action to strengthen tobacco control policies in the Africa region: “We have the opportunity to prevent the increase of tobacco use in Africa, but our approach must be gender sensitive, we must counter the claims of the tobacco industry that smokers are expressing their freedom. It is not freedom. It is not emancipation. It is trapping you into an addiction that will affect your health and your life and the health and lives of your family.”

Malebona Precious Matsoso, Director General of South Africa’s Department of Health said that cigarette smoking was the traditional focus of tobacco control research, but that other forms of tobacco use are more prevalent amongst women across the Africa region. She called for greater information for women and girls on the health harms of these forms of tobacco.

The session concluded with a call for governments to implement the most powerful measure of the WHO FCTC – comprehensive tobacco tax policies. Increasing tobacco taxes prices prevents women and young people from initiation into tobacco use.