Why do nearly one-fifth of women in America smoke? The answer goes back to an event almost 80 years ago on Fifth Avenue, which is often regarded as one of the most successful P.R. stunts in American history.
But the tobacco companies wanted to change this view. “The industry understood that they were half of humanity,” Dr. Jackler said.
So in 1928, Edward Bernays, often considered the father of modern public relations, was retained by American Tobacco Company to help get women to smoke.
Recognizing that women were still riding high on the suffrage movement, Mr. Bernays used the equality angle as the basis for his new campaign. He convinced a number of genteel women, including his own secretary, to march in the 1929 Easter Day parade down Fifth Avenue and light up cigarettes in a defiant show of their liberation.
Dr. Jackler said his mother came of age influenced by the ads. She started smoking in college in the 1940s at the University of Vermont. Her cancer had prompted his interest in that era of tobacco marketing. (Now, more women die of lung cancer than from breast cancer.)
“She thought it would be smart and sassy thing to smoke,” Dr. Jackler said. “She thought it would make her elegant and mature and sophisticated.”
Documents from the files of the tobacco companies, released in 1998, indicated they had studied female smoking habits through research projects with names like “Tomorrow’s Female,” “Cosmo” and “Virile Female.” Marketing cigarettes for women continued with the introduction of Virginia Slims in 1968, which for decades used the theme “You’ve come a long way, baby” as an allusion to the feminist movement.
“There is a bump in women’s smoking in the 1970s,” Dr. Jackler said.
That increase has shown up now, he added, as more cases of “lung cancer and emphysema, because they started smoking in the ’70s because of the Virginia Slim ads.”