Tobacco, alcohol and Women

Tobacco and alcohol harm men, women and children physically, mentally, socially and economically. In Sri Lanka the bulk of the social harm traceable to tobacco and alcohol is inflicted on and borne by women. On International Women’s Day, it is salutary to focus attention on the load of silent suffering women have to endure because of addictive substance abuse by men. Much can be done and should be done to reduce this avoidable suffering.

Currently females comprise 52 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. With an average lifespan of 77 years women outlive men by about four years. This blessing is surely largely attributable to their healthier life style.

According to a recent well-conducted investigation carried out by a team of doctors from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, the prevalence of drinking and smoking is significantly higher in the urban areas than in the rural areas of the country. The investigators found that about 33 percent of the urban adult males are current drinkers whereas only 21 percent of the rural males are. As to smoking, about 30 percent of the urban males are smokers compared to about 24 percent of their rural counterparts.


The good news on International Women’s Day is that the consumption of tobacco and alcohol by the women of Sri Lanka is remarkably low. It is so low in fact that those who believe in the Buddha word – arogya parama labha – health is the greatest asset, should jump to high heaven with joy about the healthy lifestyle of our women, especially our mothers. The dominant culture of this country sanctifies Motherhood and Mother is the name for God. Sons of this soil worship their mothers. More’s the pity, therefore, that some of these sons who worship their mothers and would not dream of hurting them, seem only too ready to hurt the mothers of their own children by abusing tobacco and alcohol. But that is another story.

Marketing gimmick

According to the third edition of The Tobacco Atlas published by the American Cancer Society in 2009, 22 percent of women in high-resourced countries and nine percent of women in low and middle-resourced countries are daily smokers.

In recent decades cigarette smoking among women in countries such as Australia, Canada, the UK and USA has declined significantly. But in several Eastern European and Asian countries, with large numbers of uneducated women, smoking has tended to increase. In the early decades of the 20th Century it was not fashionable at all for women in the USA to smoke.

In fact, women who smoked incurred social and moral disapproval. In those days the grave health hazards of smoking were not well known and many men smoked quite freely. When it came to women, though, conventional wisdom in the 1920s was that “the odour of stale tobacco does not add to a girl’s charm, neither do nicotine stained fingers …..” Smoking thus became an important issue in the context of the political and social equality between men and women.

Women who were university students took to smoking (and drinking) in an open declaration of their liberty and equality. The tobacco industry pounced on this trend with avaricious glee and aggressively marketed cigarettes to women. It used false images of vitality, slimness, emancipation, sophistication and sexual allure to seduce unsuspecting women into a deadly addiction. Intelligent women in those countries now know that tobacco use leads to reproductive damage, disease and death. In today’s world only half uneducated women think that it is cool to smoke.

Indirect promotion

All of the above was meant to set the background to draw the attention of parents of this country to a sustained attempt made by a local TV channel to promote the smoking habit among our young women. In this case a scene in a teledrama shows a young woman smoking in a room in a household.

The cigarette itself is not shown (because that would be too obvious a violation of the current anti-tobacco law), but the girl says upfront that she is smoking. In the next few sequences three sensible people, a man and two women who are older than the smoking girl, express their strong disapproval of her smoking. Thereupon, the smoker argues that she has chosen to smoke in the privacy of her room and that nobody has a right to interfere with her free adult choice.

At that stage a young guy appears on the scene and shoots his mouth. He strongly defends the young woman’s right to smoke. First, he says thousands of girls smoke nowadays. Secondly, he insists, women’s liberation necessarily includes their right to smoke. Thirdly, he declares, women who oppose other women’s smoking are motivated by jealousy of the smoker’s enjoyment.

A moment’s thought suffices to show that this young bloke is talking through his hat. Quite evidently, he has been hired to lie on behalf of the tobacco industry.

Women smokers

First, contrary to what he says, careful studies have shown that only a microscopic minority of Sri Lanka’s women smoke (and drink). Moreover, there is a reason to believe that the few young women who smoke ostentatiously in public have been hired by the tobacco industry to do so as a cheap ploy to trap silly girls.

Secondly, his opinion that women who oppose other women’s smoking are motivated by jealousy is just the personal opinion of one silly young man. Thirdly, his view that women’s liberation is about the right of women to smoke demonstrates that he hasn’t a clue about what women’s liberation really is. Sad to say, this is the sort of argument that seems to hoodwink adolescents.

On International Women’s Day, as the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol, Chairman, I appeal to the intelligent and educated women of this country to express their strong disapproval of the attempts of certain TV channels to defile Sri Lankan womanhood.

Focus on women

  • International Women’s Day 2010 theme – Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all
  • International Women’s Day is now an official holiday in China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
  • The tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, with flowers and small gifts.
  • In some countries IWD has the equivalent status of Mother’s Day where children give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers.
  • Annually on March 8, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate achievements.
  • The Day celebrates with activities ranging from political rallies, business conferences, government activities and networking events through to local women’s craft markets, theatric performances, fashion parades.


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