Why European women are still smoking like chimneys

Trés uncool

Woman smoking
(Image credit: (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images))

Soaring tobacco taxes, indoor bans, and bold health warnings on packages have not been enough to keep Europeans from their cigarettes, says a new report from the World Health Organization released this week.

Nearly 28 percent of adult Europeans smoked in 2011, compared to under 20 percent in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though smoking plummeted in the U.K. between 2005 and 2011, France, Albania, and the Czech Republic all added new smokers in those years, buoying the region's overall number.

Smoking among women is rising at a particularly "alarming rate," says WHO. The number of female smokers rose by three percent in France, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania, and seven percent in Austria. And though boys historically smoke more than girls, the region's young ladies have now caught up.

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The trend is surprising because Europe has been something of a trailblazer in regulating smoking. Many countries have mandated graphic health warnings on cigarette packages, and slapped tobacco products with heavy taxes, a tactic WHO says is the most cost-effective way to deter consumers from smoking. In 25 countries across Europe, 75 percent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes comes from taxes. In addition, 17 percent of countries have passed public smoking bans.

So why are Europeans still puffing away?

It may come down to good old-fashioned marketing. Though many countries have banned media, radio, and internet tobacco ads, fewer have also banned billboard ads, and only three countries in the region have banned all forms of direct and indirect advertising, says Bloomberg.

This leaves the tobacco companies free to use certain guileful tactics, which may help explain why more girls and women are picking up the habit, says a separate WHO report. To attract women, tobacco companies across the region are relying on more female-friendly packaging, cigarette variations like "light," "slim," and "super-slim," and traditionally female colors like pink. That's not pink packaging — brands are selling bright pink cigarettes.

Other strategies are more elaborate. In 2005 one company "launched several aromas to address women's concerns about the unpleasant smell of tobacco smoke, and promoted the product as allowing women to change aroma to suit their mood," says the report. In addition, "an esteemed French designer was involved in the package design, ensuring it reflected the season's fashion trends."

Russia, which WHO counts in the region, has seen 100 or so new brands marketed especially for women, "promoted with images of glamor and fashion." And large tobacco companies are also targeting high-profile fashion, sports, cultural, and music events that draw large female audiences.

So what can countries do to discourage the trend? The WHO has some ideas:

Stronger action is needed to adapt to evolving tobacco industry marketing strategies and new tobacco products. European countries need for example, to regulate further smokeless tobacco products, adopt more broadly pictorial warnings, expand further the size of health warnings, ban packaging and labeling using descriptors depicting flavors, and require national quit line numbers on packages. [WHO]

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Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.