Women now pay the price for smoking in the Mad Men era as number of lung cancer cases rises, a United Kingdom charity says.
“You’ve come a long way, baby.” That’s the slogan cigarette maker Altria Group, formerly Phillip Morris Companies, used to sell its Virginia Slims when it first introduced the brand in 1968. Some media watch groups interviewed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decades later blame this campaign for the rapid increase in smoking among teenage girls in that era.
A report by the United States Surgeon General — famous for being the first in the U.S. to say bravely, in 1964, that smoking caused cancer — interpreted this marketing slogan, as well as later ones, as an attempt to lure women into taking up smoking by linking it “to women’s freedom, emancipation, and empowerment.”
In the same report, the U.S. Surgeon General also tied the increase of smoking among teenage girls to rises in sales of Virginia Slims and other “niche” brands marketed directly to women.
Now, four decades after that slogan first saw print, women in the United Kingdom are paying the price. Lung cancer rates among British women continue to rise as decades of smoking take their toll, a leading charity reports on April 13.
New figures published by Cancer Research UK show that:
• Compared with fewer than 8,000 in 1975, more than 18,000 women in the UK were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009.
• Compared with 22 per 100,000 in 1975, there were 39 cases of lung cancer for every 100,000 women in the UK In 2009.
The number of cases reflects smoking patterns from around two to three decades ago. Smoking among women was most prevalent in the 1960s — the period described by Cancer Research UK as the “the ‘Mad Men era,’” after the popular British television show. It was a time when the first wave of Women’s Liberation Movement was underway — and around 45 percent of women smoked.
Today, the numbers of smoking women have fallen to 20 percent of all UK women, following growing awareness of the hazards of smoking. But the effects of habits in earlier days are still being felt.
“The continuing rise of lung cancer in women reflects the high number of female smokers several decades ago when attitudes were different,” says Jean King, director of tobacco control at Cancer Research UK. These figures highlight the “deadly impact” of tobacco, she says.
But even if the numbers of women smokers are going down, King warns that, “Tobacco advertising hasn’t appeared on UK television since 1965, but that didn’t stop the marketing of cigarettes. New, more sophisticated marketing techniques have lured many hundreds of thousands into starting an addiction that will kill half of all long term smokers.”
Lung cancer rates in men going down
But unlike women, rates of lung cancer among men in the UK have been falling steeply. In 1975 the rate of lung cancer among men in the UK was 110 per 100,000, whereas now it is 58.8.
Nearly 35,000 people — 19,410 men and 15,449 women — died from lung cancer in the UK in 2010, according to the new figures.
But while lung cancer rates are rising in British women, these have been falling among U.K. men — the number of cases now stands at 58.8 per 100,000, compared with 110 in 1975.
Cancer Research UK puts this down to smoking rates having peaked earlier among men than women.
More than 65 percent of men smoked during World War II and the rest of the 1940s, leading to lung cancer rates reaching their highest around 30 years later, in 1979, the charity says. The disease is still more common among men in the UK, as the figures show.