Breaking News: Women Care about Health

As of 2011, 14.8% of adults in Queensland, the northeastern state of the nation of Australia, reported smoking on a daily basis, and another 4.1% reported smoking between weekly and monthly[i]. This is slightly higher than the US smoking prevalence, which, as of 2012, was 18.1% of American adults[ii]. In the US, smoking and the tobacco industry have been under an increasing amount of attack since the Surgeon General reported in 1964 the health effects smoking has on the smoker; among the latest measures taken is the series of advertisements by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention entitled “Tips from Former Smokers” (See participants of these ads and their stories at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/press/campaign-preview-2014.html). In contrast, the latest campaign by the Queensland government to decrease the percentage of the population that smokes is the “If you smoke, your future’s not pretty” campaign. Launched by Aussie model Rachael Finch and the Queensland Minister for Health, Lawrence Springborg, in May of this year, the goal of the campaign is, according to its website at http://ifyousmoke.initiatives.qld.gov.au/, to “encourage young women in Queensland to quit smoking by showing how the habit can age them faster and damage their looks”[iii].

Now I want to make this abundantly clear: it is fantastic that the Queensland government is initiating a conversation about putting an end to smoking. This is something that needs to happen everywhere, because the fact that almost 20% of people smoke in the US, Queensland, and so many more places where the risks of smoking have been clear and understood for decades is ridiculous.

That being said, this campaign put on by the Queensland government is a great example of how far we as an English-speaking society still have to go in terms of dismantling problematic societal infrastructures. In the spirit of deconstruction, I’ll go through the issues with this campaign the same way one might take apart a watch or car, systematically and unapologetically.

Let’s start with the title: “If You Smoke, You’re Future’s Not Pretty.” That’s true, smoking does negatively impact your future. The title implies, however, that if something isn’t “pretty” it’s bad. Think about it, the word “ugly” has this horrible connotation behind it…but what really defines what is and isn’t pretty? Society does. The title of this campaign decided to play on this social construct, which provides them with a clever title but simultaneously reinforces the idea that pretty is good and anything that isn’t pretty is inherently wrong.

The campaign’s website is broken up into sections, the first of which is called “How smoking affects you.” The first sentence below the title is “quitting smoking boosts your looks,” and it goes on to say that “studies show that smoking ages you faster and damages your skin, so getting rid of cigarettes really is a beautiful thing. Smoking also costs you a lot of money, makes you unfit, and, of course, seriously damages your health.” This is unbelievable…that the Queensland government assumes being outwardly acceptable by society’s standards is the prime concern of women, so much so that they list it as the first issue with smoking, just goes to show the still-standing perception of women in society as shallow, thoughtless people incapable of caring about their health without first knowing how it affects their outward appearance.

The second section is called “How to quit smoking,” and I’ll admit I got my hopes up that this section would be better. Then I clicked on the tab “reasons to quit,” and the first item on the list was “you’ll look better: quitting smoking will make you look younger and prettier.” Needless to say, I was again disappointed.

The website did have some high points: there is a “get support” section that provides contact with confidential, trained counselors to help smokers quit via a phone call, and there is also a “QuitTracker” app offered that lets the user monitor their daily smoking in a diary format, which puts the amount one smokes in perspective and can help the person plan to quit. From a public health standpoint, this is a fantastic example of increasing people’s self-efficacy by providing resources and making it more possible to quit smoking.

But here’s an idea: let’s support people in the journey to quit smoking without interweaving misogynistic undertones into our campaign. Let’s not automatically assume that women, who are the target of this campaign according to the website, care about how they look more than anything else. Building off of stereotypes, off of rigid gender roles, serves to enforce everything that has proved to hold women beneath men for centuries. By capitalizing off of the image of a shallow, materialistic woman simply to have a catchy slogan for their campaign, the Queensland Government is making a gross assumption of what the Australian woman cares about. Furthermore, this assumption reveals that the government does not consider women to be intelligent enough or well enough informed to be able to hold their health status as a priority over their complexion.

Here’s the bottom line: the Queensland government’s campaign against smoking builds off of the physical insecurities of women, put in place by the same societal infrastructure, because of its effectiveness to get women to care. But this is the wrong way to go about this. Instead of using women’s insecurities as a means to an end to smoking (I’m hard-pressed to believe campaigns like this one will make that change anyway), the Queensland government should make a campaign designed with the idea that women care about their health as much as anyone else. I know this is difficult; assuming women care about real issues more than how they look is pretty bizarre. But I think doing so would have a much more beneficial outcome in terms of reducing smoking rates and at the same time avoid suppressing women as equal people with equal concerns.

[i] Queensland Health. 2011 Self reported health status survey. Population Epidemiology Unit, Preventative Health Directorate: Brisbane; 2011

[ii] Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention. Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults—United States, 2005-2012. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2014; 63(02): 29-34 [accessed 2014 November 10].

[iii] If you smoke your future’s not pretty. (2014, May 1). Retrieved November 10, 2014, from http://ifyousmoke.initiatives.qld.gov.au/

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