Most women I know suddenly turn camera-shy when holding a lit cigarette. I’m not talking about closet smokers but independent women who take tough decisions each day of their lives. Whether it is CEOs, academicians, housewives, college students, models or actresses, mention a photograph of them smoking and they coyly say no.
Think about it. Even before Ramadoss’ quixotic battle against smoking on celluloid, actors smoked unapologetically both on and off screen. Some still do. Actresses who smoked on screen, however, spent hours explaining they were doing it because the role demanded it, even when the audience obviously didn’t care.
The fashion world is no different. Models don’t mind appearing in cigarette ads, but say they smoked just for the shoot. Ramp models take embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions in their leggy stride but quickly stub cigarettes when they see a shutterbug. The reason is usually something embarrassing like, “My mom doesn’t know I smoke”. Modern moms and sundry acquaintances, it seems, don’t care about what you do and how you live as long you don’t smoke.
I can’t figure it out. The fact that smoking is largely taboo and considered a very, very bad habit is what makes it appealing to young people. Decades of advertising has made making smoking a symbol of defiance against adults trying to run your life, prompting many teens to light up to declare their independence. Most girls start smoking because it’s glamorous, suppresses appetite and keeps you thin. When you are 18 and staying in shape tops your “to do” list, arguments of lung cancers and heart attacks don’t work. At that age, most girls would happily consider losing a lung if it means shedding a kilo or two.
I would like to believe that women don’t want to be photographed smoking because deep down — very deep down in most cases — they want to quit. And they should, purely for medical reasons. When it comes to smoking, the odds are stacked against women. Young women smokers are more likely than young men to get addicted and are at higher risk of developing heart disease, stroke and cancer. The World Health Organization links smoking with 25 cancers — head and neck, urinary bladder, kidneys, uterine, cervix, pancreas, and colon, to name a few — all of which progress faster in women smokers than men.
Even secondhand smoke hurts women more, almost doubling breast cancer risk in women, particularly in younger ones. Breast cancer is the fastest-rising cancer among women in urban India, having overtaken cancer of the cervix as the leading cancer among women in Mumbai and Delhi.
For women smokers, cancer is not the only worry. Smoking not only increases the risk of stroke and heart disease among all women, it also raises the risk tenfold in women on birth-control pills. Women smokers get heart attacks 16 to 18 years earlier than non-smokers because it brings down the levels of heart-protecting estrogen and good cholesterol.
The US Surgeon General’s Women and Smoking report notes that lung cancer rates among women are rising faster in women than men. There has been a 600 per cent increase in lung cancer deaths among women since 1950 because of more women beginning to smoke.
All this data has convinced me that if a photograph and a “I will tell your mom” threat is all it takes to get a woman to stub her cigarette, we should consider keeping a camera handy.