Tobacco Companies Target Working-Class Women

Author:  Dennis Wenger
Institution:  University of Alberta
Date:  July 2004

The largest manufacturers of cigarettes in America are focusing their marketing on undereducated and low-income women of the unskilled working class, according to a study released last month. Citing numerous internal documents, a Tufts University and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) research group concluded that tobacco companies view this segment of the population as a rare opportunity for growth. In research published last month in the journal Tobacco Control, the Massachusetts researchers express hope that this insight into the plans of the tobacco industry will be helpful in guiding future anti-tobacco legislation and awareness efforts.

Led by Professor Elizabeth Barbeau of the Harvard Medical School-affiliated DFCI, the group searched 36 million pages of RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris USA’s internal documents, specifically those of the companies' own research into product creation, advertising, and marketing. One of the reports was titled, "Less educated ... Today’s trend ... Tomorrow’s market???" and another pointed out that "No more than 5% of smokers start after age 24." RJ Reynolds, which developed the Dakota brand of cigarettes based on this market research, said in one of its documents that "working class smokers are becoming more important ... females will be as important (or more important) than males."

In 1965, one in two men and one in three women smoked in the United States; now, the average rate is about one in four in men and one in five in women. However, among women whose education ended with high school, the rate is double the average; among women with a college degree, it is half.

Although this means most segments of the population are smoking less than they were 40 years ago, working-class young women are not. Now that Barbeau has shown this group to be a target, tobacco control groups may be able to better direct their resources. She suggests that some funds now going to college campus initiatives, where addiction rates and tobacco industry interest is low, should be refocused to working class areas such as nightclubs, labor unions, and construction and manufacturing industries. Furthermore, since RJ Reynolds’ research indicates this group of women view themselves as "maverick," "tough," and "tomboyish," anti-smoking advertisements appealing to feminine concerns, such as wife and motherhood issues, are likely ineffective.