8 March 2023
March 8, 2023: Today, women and girls around the globe mark International Women’s Day to close the gender gap, acknowledge existing problems and celebrate wins. The theme DigitAll: Innovation and Technology for gender equality is wake-up call on how Big Tobacco’s harmful business uses technology to drive gender inequality instead of solving it. We need to reject these harmful practices, call-out accountability from the industry and governments to better protect us.
Every year the tobacco industry sponsors programs involving women’s groups and mouths public statements about empowering women. Prof Judith Mackay, special advisor to the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, reminds us that in reality the statistics are stark: “Tobacco kills more women than any other consumer product sold today. Two million women die from tobacco use every year, the bulk of whom live in low- and middle-income countries.”
The tobacco industry has not taken responsibility for the harm its products cause or compensated any of its customers and yet has now introduced another range of tobacco products framed as “innovative” using technology. These are heated tobacco products (HTPs) and e-cigarettes available in thousands of flavours.
The digital way out for women and girls from the tobacco problem
1.Digital exposé of promotion of vaping
Although vaping prevalence among adult females remains low, it is a growing problem among adolescent girls. About 38% of teenage girls in Malaysia have tried e-cigarettes before the age of 14 years while about 15% of Filipino teenage girls have tried e-cigarettes.
The industry is claiming that e-cigarettes are a technological innovation and they are not tobacco products hence should not be regulated as such. But the industry has been exposed for using young social influencers online to promote vaping to youth especially girls (Figure 1) the same way it promoted cigarettes previously to hook young smokers.
Figure 1: Philip Morris’ and BAT’s use of social media influencers to promote HTPs and e-cigarettes
Philip Morris’ use of social media influencer to promote IQOS’; courtesy CTFK
BAT’s use of social media influencer to promote Vype;courtesy CTFK
Action: Use Apps developed by tobacco control groups (see here and here) to report industry promotion of tobacco products on social media. Kudos to the young women who are already doing this! Also send your complaint to the government. Social influencers should be required to take an online course on harms of tobacco to know more about the product they were paid to promote.
2. Women make cigarettes for low wages in developing countries
While Big Tobacco publicises its gender equality policy and certificates for equal pay, in reality many thousands of women, such as the Indonesian women who hand roll Kretek cigarettes (Figure 2), work for low wages while handling a harmful product. These women handle tobacco with their bare hands and don’t have the full information about the harm it causes them or how they can be protected.
Figure 2: Women rolling cigarettes with bare hands
Women hand-rolling cigarettes in PMI’s Indonesian tobacco factory. Photo: Indonesia Investment
Action: There should be an App that measures tobacco fragments in the air the women breathe and nicotine absorbed into their skin when rolling tobacco so the women are informed immediately. Women should be provided information on tobacco harms health and be assisted to shift to alternate less harmful jobs.
3. Girls excluded from DigitAll and working on tobacco farms
Child labour is still used in many countries to produce tobacco leaves. According to the US Department of Labor’s latest list of goods produced with child labor or forced labor, 17 countries were found to use child labor in tobacco production including in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Girls who should be in school are instead toiling on tobacco fields (Figure 3) and excluded from DigitAll. Perhaps their village does not even have access to internet connectivity. Their families are so poor that the girls (and boys) need to help their parents on the tobacco fields to produce leaves which are then sold at low prices. The children have no idea how the tobacco leaves they help produce end up making huge profits for tobacco companies.
Figure 3: Girls excluded from digitalAll and working on tobacco fields
Child preparing leaves for curing in East Lombok, W Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch
Girls working on tobacco fields in Zambia; courtesy TOFAZA, 2022
Action: There should be zero child labour in tobacco production. There should be a digital system to show any tobacco product manufactured using child labor. Tobacco companies should be held liable for using and benefiting from child labor.
4. Digital barcode on cigarette packs should facilitate smoker registration
Cigarette packs come with a digital barcode that contain information known only to manufacturers but not consumers nor the ordinary people in the supply chain such as the women and children mentioned above. Smokers who buy cigarette packs with these digital barcodes have no idea of the numerous additives that go into making the cigarettes. Worse, the manufacturer has more information about the smoker than the smoker of the cigarettes they smoke.
The global tobacco market is worth US$935 billion. Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and the Imperial Group recently posted their huge profits for 2022 and stated they need to continue selling harmful cigarettes (worth $518 billion globally) to be able to invest in their smoke-free tobacco products – which are not harmless.
Since the bulk of smokers actually want to stop smoking, digital technology must be used to help smokers quit and prevent initiation.
Action: Besides the quit smoking apps already available, one way to discourage uptake is to require potential smokers to take a course, require a license to smoke and be registered. Digital technology can facilitate this process.
5. Harmful innovation
Despite mounting evidence on the harms and risks associating with vaping, the industry is calling e-cigarettes an “innovation” and they are designed to look like electronic gadgets. Innovation should not cause spontaneous combustion, injure the lungs and land its users in intensive care but the industry is targeting youth, particularly girls to start vaping. Technology should enhance life, not entrap and injure. Additionally, these products are single use plastics (cigarette filters and vape devices) and contribute to chemical pollution of the environment.
Action: E-cigarettes should be banned. In the mean time, digital technology can be used to track pollution, sales to minors, complaints on violation of laws, repository of spontaneous combustion and other problems associated with this so-called innovation.