Why smoking women aren’t targeted in anti-smoking campaigns

Why smoking women aren't targeted in anti-smoking campaigns

Cough cough cough. Dhoomrapaan padega mehenga. The father sits on the sofa next to the daughter, watching TV, smoking like a vehicle exhaust that hasn’t been serviced in three years, while the mother irons clothes in the background. Miraculously, the dad realises his selfishness in smoking when a horrific scene of a man coughing in a hospital and a doctor examining scans of his blackened lungs appears on television. The daughter looks up into her father’s eyes pathetically. He gets up and walks away, dilemma contorting his face. When he comes back in, his hands are empty and he gathers his daughter in his arms. She has a look of utmost innocence and gratitude on her face. While daddy and his little girl share this dripping, sentimental moment together, the mother stands behind them, smiling.

The implications are clear. This ad, played before every movie in every theatre in the country, projects the notion that it’s only fathers who smoke. Well, sorry to shatter your dreamlike illusion of women, society - bharatiya naaris are no longer the symbol of goodness. Most do cook, clean and take care of their kids. They also drink, go to parties and movies without their kids and, yes, they smoke.

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Don’t get me wrong here. It’s great to see that smoking is actively being discouraged in the last couple of years. With the introduction of public service ads - however badly made - and no-smoking zones in the city, an attempt to have people realise the dangers of smoking is being made. We know that it’s not really going to help; people quit only when they’ve made up their minds to all on their own. Still, it’s portrayal as a ‘cool’ habit in popular and mass media has reduced drastically now. Think 80s and 90s Bollywood movies in which the hero lit cigarettes with a flourish, yanking off his sunglasses with one hand as he exhaled into the camera. No, now, along with introducing a mandatory “smoking kills” text at the bottom of the screen whenever someone smokes, directors show their characters hiding the habit from their families (Fawad Khan in Kapoor and Sons) because they don’t approve of its health hazard. Finally, it does seem as undesirable as it really is.

But this is my point: if you’re going to try to get people to quit smoking, target all the groups you need to. You’re using familial guilt to have fathers stop - doesn’t it make sense to include mothers in the same target group? If you’re going to emotionally blackmail an adult into giving up a bad habit with a puppy-faced child, which parent would you start with? The mother! She’s the primary caregiver, won’t she feel guilt more keenly than the dad will? The only reason she’s excluded from the entire ad, including the warm, enveloping hug that father and daughter share at the end, is that no one wants to believe that mothers are capable of smoking at all.

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That’s where it becomes a gender issue. If this denial arises out of the idea that women are the carriers of culture and should therefore protect India’s pristine values by not smoking, well, we’re not willing to wear that tag anymore. For people who claim medical backing in a high incidence of breast cancer among smoking women, studies at the American Cancer Academy show that calculating the risk of breast cancer in smoking women is very complicated, as other lifestyle choices could play a role in its incidence too. On the other hand, it’s been proven time and again that 80-90 percent of lung cancer is caused by smoking. Men have lungs too, don’t they? That means they should never have been encouraged to think of this deadly habit as acceptable in the first place. Smoking isn’t a healthy habit for anyone, so the answer here is not to have large numbers of women begin smoking, but for women to be included in the acknowledged bracket of smokers. And, ultimately, if they decide not to quit, it’s a choice they make and a risk they take, same as with men.

So, if you’re a smoking mother, the next time you see that terrible public service ad, don’t dismiss it.

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