“We've been singled out for praise as one of the best private sector companies…around our International Women's Day campaign,” boasted British American Tobacco on its website.

What a lovely, feel-good distraction from the core business, delivered with an air of respectability. Globally, tobacco products kill more than 8 million people each year. Certainly nothing to celebrate.

That the tobacco industry should promote International Women’s Day is hardly surprising. In fact, the industry has a long history of co-opting women’s liberation movements to expand the market. Here, gender equality really means equal access and addiction to cigarettes.

My grandmother was an impressionable young girl when aviation pioneer, Amelia Earhart, became the face of Lucky Strike cigarettes. She met her other idol, Amy Johnson, in the Wheatbelt in 1930 after her extraordinary solo flight from London.

With weight loss in mind, advertisements urged women to reach for a Lucky to ‘avoid that future shadow’. My grandmother quit smoking when an X-ray revealed a shadow on her lungs. She suffered with emphysema for years before she died.

In the 60s and 70s, feminist slogans were corrupted to signal that women who smoked were independent, capable and strong.

Philip Morris’ flagship campaign for Virginia Slims cigarettes (designed specifically for ‘delicate hands’) depicted the women’s rights movement and ended with the earworm, “You’ve come a long way, baby. You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby…”

And so the story goes, women had won the hard-fought ‘right to smoke’.

The theme of female aspiration and empowerment was so successful from a marketing perspective that by the mid-seventies, when my mother took up the habit, one third of Australian women were smokers. Mum quit smoking cold turkey when she became pregnant with her first child. This continues to be a strong motivator for many women to make a quit attempt.

Smoking among women in Australia peaked in the 1980s but the true toll was only realised over the following 30 years, with a surge in lung cancer deaths and other tobacco related diseases.

With no memory of overt tobacco advertising or smoking inside public places, my generation is the main beneficiary of Australia’s world-leading action to reduce smoking rates.

But the fact that more Western Australian women die from lung cancer than breast cancer is a sobering reminder of the need to avoid complacency. We need greater investment in what we know works: strong tobacco control policy, mass media campaigns, protection from industry interference and support for proven smoking cessation strategies.

To Western Australian women, wherever you are on your quitting journey, we salute you.
You’ve come a long way, baby.

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