What the Tobacco Industry did for Women

Jacob Nizierski

Did you ever see a woman light a cigarette and thought to yourself “What a provocative example of moral decay!”?

That’s unlikely because you were not born in the 19th century. When your favourite Western movie doesn’t show women smoking tobacco, it is actually historically accurate: women were not supposed to be smoking until the 1920’s.

Tobacco Was Off to a Rough Start

The evolution of the cigarette into a socially acceptable consumer product for women is a notable story in itself, as fine gentlemen only smoked cigars in the late 19th century. In fact, the small and thin paper-rolled tobacco sticks were cheap and easy to consume, yet there was a considerable stigma against it until the end of the 19th century.

In the United States, groups as the ‘Clean Living’ movement lobbied heavily for tobacco-bans, as they associated cigarettes with excessive alcohol consumption and pornography. These campaigners claimed that eliminating the evils of alcohol, tobacco, and pornography would return traditional family values and lead to a prosperous era free from crime:

Besides alcohol, substances such as tobacco, tea and coffee were considered harmful in awakening “evil traits”. Men were considered to become debilitated by alcohol and tobacco, and women were believed injured by coffee and tea. Along with temperance reform, anti-tobacco sentiment arose during the first Clean Living Movement. [1]

This movement was nourished by works such as the 1798 book Observations Upon the Influence of the Habitual Use of Tobacco Upon Health, Morals and Property by no other than Benjamin Rush. In the 1830’s, the anti-tobacco movement picked up simultaneously with the first calls for alcohol prohibition.

Tobacco companies combatted their damaged image with marketing campaigns. These early ads did show women, but they were used to sexualise the appeal of the cigarette, not to target female customers. As the cigarette became a mass produced product, it remained a male habit. In public opinion, only shady figures such as prostitutes would engage in smoking. The Clean Living movements were so influential that in 1908, a woman in New York was arrested for smoking a cigarette in public. [2]

The First World War Changed Social Norms

In Europe, the First World War had the inevitable effect of all military drafts: while the men are away fighting in the trenches, women had to take over typically male jobs. These included works such as farming techniques which required a lot of physical force, construction or munition factory work. The latter were called Munitionettes in the United Kingdom, whose government had, with the Munitions of War Acts of 1915, heavily regulated the production of ammunition, legislating that considerably more women had to be employed in the sector.

The work in these factories was very damaging to ones health, since workers were exposed to toxic gases such as Trinitrotoluene (TNT) and nitric acid, causing damages to the immune system and infertility. As a result of increased stress and heavy work, women also picked up the male habit of smoking, as the war did not grant any time for social debates about behavioral policy.

Markets Don’t Care About Your Gender

As social attitudes among consumers changed, producers were more than happy to oblige them. What had started during the Great War was consequently picked up by the tobacco industry in the two decades following the war. The first printed ads turned out to be shy in their intention to depict women smoking, such as this Abdulla ad from 1921:

Source: Stanford School of Medicine

Soon tobacconists recognised the true potential behind female customers, and that serving consumers — even those with ideas the puritans found to be objectionable — could be highly lucrative. In fact, George Washington Hill, president of American Tobacco Co. said in 1928: “It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard”

A gold mine it was indeed. In the upcoming year, companies became more daring, as seen in this 1929 Lucky Strike ad, which blantantly admits that it is advertising cigarettes to women:

Source: Stanford School of Medicine

The “torch of freedom” was what tobacco companies were selling, and tobacco companies catered to changing perceptions of women through their advertising: it became common for known female actors give endorsement of cigarette products, and Philip Morris even went so far to organise lectures teaching women how to smoke, in order to have them hold it correctly and breath out in a lady-like fashion.”

For many women, cigarettes became a sign of stepping up to men and their patronising attitudes. Cultural change, accelerated by war, became rapid and by the time of World War II, women didn’t need no man to allow them to smoke a cigarette. In 1943, Philipp Morris ran this ad:

Source: Stanford School of Medicine

Capitalism didn’t care about the image that puritans or other social conservatives tried to impose, as tobacco companies actively lobbied against these views. We can observe the exact same effect in India, where markets are breaking down the caste system. The markets simply attempted to deliver what consumers wanted.

No one forced women to buy cigarettes, and no one forced the tobacco companies to sell them. Far from enforcing any sort of moral code, the markets sold what the consumers asked for. We find the same wherever we find markets.


This article was first published by the Mises Institute.

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