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Busting an ABC headline, and a myth about women and smoking

It’s time to bust some media myths about smoking amongst girls and women, says Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney.

He writes:

“Last week, visiting expert in women’s health, Canadian Dr Lorraine Greaves, got ink from a reported claim in a speech to a national women’s health conference in Hobart that  “rising smoking rates among Australian women and girls is concerning” and that “advertising by tobacco companies that targets women” was responsible.

The trouble was, she said nothing of the sort.

The ABC report began “A national women’s health conference in Hobart has heard young Australian girls are taking up smoking at an alarming rate.”

Greaves told me this morning that “My interview was about global smoking patterns, not Australian, yet this does not seem to be reflected [in the ABC report].  I did not address this issue in my address [to the conference] at all, in fact my address was about another subject entirely in womens health. I did approve a release for ABC re: global patterns [of smoking], for which many of my comments hold true, but not this release. I was in fact discussing women’s health policy making, but for whatever reason, ABC was only interested in this issue.”

In fact, the situation with women’s smoking in Australia is just the opposite. It has never been lower.

In this 2009 data from NSW looking at adults aged 16+ , men have higher smoking rates than women in every age group, with a peak of 29.3% for men aged 25-34. Women’s smoking has has never been lower than it is now, with an average of 14.2% of women smoking across all ages compared with 20.3% of men.

Youth smoking rates in NSW also show overall, that boys smoke more than girls. And as for trends (“rising”), here’s the summary of national data of kids in school:

“Similar studies of the prevalence of cigarette use among Australian secondary school students were conducted in 1999 and 2002, allowing changes in prevalence over the six-year period between 1999 and 2005 to be examined. The proportion of 12- to 15-year-old students smoking in their lifetime, in the past month and in the past week in 2005 was significantly lower than that found in 2002 and in 1999. In 2005, 7% of 12- to 15-year-old students smoked in the week before the survey compared with 11% in 2002 and 15% in 1999. This pattern of results was consistent for both males and females. For the 16- and 17-year-olds, a similar pattern of results was found.

“The proportion of all 16- and 17-year-old students who had ever smoked in 2005 was significantly less than that found in 1999 and 2002. In addition, the proportions of 16 and 17 year old students who had smoked in the past month, in the past week and on three or more days in the past, were lower in 2005 than in 2002 and 1999. In 2005, 17% of 16- and 17-year-old students smoked in the week before the survey compared with 23% in 2002 and 30% in 1999. This pattern of results was consistent for both males and females.”

Again, with young women, smoking prevalence has never been lower. It is not rising here. It is falling.

And what about Greaves’ misreported claim that tobacco industry targeting of women is responsible for this (mythical) rise in smoking?

Australia has not had tobacco advertising or sponsorship since 1994, something the ABC journalist should have been well aware of.

It appears that Greaves was  the latest in a long line of experts to be filtered through a resilient myth-that-will-not-die, seemingly hot-wired into many journalists: that smoking by “young girls” just keeps on going up.

Smoking by women is rising in many economies in economic transition where tobacco advertising remains rampant. This important message sweeps under the carpet successful efforts to reduce smoking, including that by women.”

Comments 1

  1. Sun says:

    Young female “victims” of tobacco companies being highlighted in the media – not a huge surprise considering the media bias towards reporting crimes involving young, white, attractive, females to enhance shock value.

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