Female ‘Empowerment’ Is Great — Except When it Comes to Smoking

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REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

What does “empowerment” mean for women around the globe? More smoking deaths, for one. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports that in countries where more women work in government office, have equal voting rights and relative parity to men in terms of income, women also smoke more.

The UNDP measured levels of national female empowerment in 74 countries. In countries with poor female empowerment scores, like China, Pakistan, Uganda and Saudi Arabia, men were five times more likely to smoke than women. By contrast, in countries like Australia, Canada, Sweden and the U.S., where women have made great strides toward gender equality, the unfortunate side effect is a parity of a different kind: women smoke almost as much as men do.

The study [PDF], published Tuesday in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, was the first to compare female empowerment and smoking rates. Going forward, rates of smoking in women are expected to rise in poor countries, closing the gender gap. Wrote the researchers:

While women’s smoking prevalence rates are currently
lower than men’s, they are projected to rise in many low- and middle-income countries. Data from the Global Youth Tobacco Survey show that worldwide smoking rates among boys and girls resemble each other more than smoking rates among adult women and men, with boys between the ages of 13 and 15 years smoking only 2 to 3 times more than girls.

The Tobacco Free Initiative at WHO chose 2010 as the year to focus on the relationship between gender and tobacco use, given tobacco companies’ aggressive marketing campaigns targeting women. “This study highlights the need to act quickly to curb smoking among women, particularly in developing countries,” Dr. Douglas Bettcher, director of the Tobacco Free Initiative, said in a statement. “The tobacco epidemic is still in its early stages in many countries but is expected to worsen. Strong tobacco control measures such as bans on tobacco advertising are needed to prevent the tobacco industry from targeting women.”

Worldwide, smoking kills 5 million people each year and is predicted to kill 1 billion people this century.