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March 3, 2010

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Women lured by stylish smokes

RACHEL Pan, a 24-year-old luxury magazine editor, broke up with her boyfriend a month ago and she blames it all on a cigarette and her embarrassing first meeting with his parents.

The five-year smoker was so stressed during dinner at a restaurant with the family that she hid in the staircase near the bathroom and sneaked a cigarette. When she emerged, his mother was right there - on her way to the bathroom.

"She didn't say anything at the time but she asked my boyfriend whether I smoke. They just didn't like me from the very beginning since his mom is a teacher and dad a civil servant," says Pan.

"They never asked me or talked about it directly, but they just made me feel I'm too wild for their 'intellectual family'," she adds.

Pan is one of an estimated 350 million-plus smokers in China, including 20-30 million women. The number is increasing for both men and women.

According to the China Tobacco Control Report 2009, China contains almost one-third of all smokers in the world.

Around 540 million Chinese suffer from second-hand smoke and more than 1 million people die of tobacco-related diseases every year.

It is estimated that almost 70 percent of men, including teenagers, are smokers.

Only a tiny percentage of women smoke, maybe under 3 percent, no one knows for sure. In Shanghai, a local survey company estimated that around 7 percent of city women smoke.

Many women smokers have had unpleasant experiences similar to Pan's, due to stereotypes of Chinese women smokers as "unladylike, promiscuous (smoking is widely associated with prostitution), ill-mannered, failed academically, wild and generally unconventional and irreverent."

Despite the stereotype, the incidence of women smokers is increasing, though statistics are not available. Many smoke quite openly, flaunting their style and gesturing with long slim cigarettes that smell like mint or chocolate.

Some begin for social reasons (everyone is doing it) - some to combat stress, some because they think smoking is stylish.

A 2007 survey from Horizon Research Consultancy, a large Chinese company, interviewed smokers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou (Guangdong Province) and Wuhan (Hubei Province). It found that women have much shorter smoking experience than men - but this seems set to change.

It shows that among all women smokers, about 70 percent have smoked for less than 10 years and 32 percent for less than five. It indicates that many women started smoking quite recently.

Professor Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist at Fudan University, says people smoke for one of two reasons: addiction or style.

More women are smoking these days primarily because they think it makes them look stylish and graceful, not primarily because of stress, says Prof Gu.

They think long slim cigarettes make their hands and gestures look fluid and attractive, he says. Many see cigarettes as a sign of luxury and are likely to smoke even more when people are watching them - in contrast to the women who hide. They're not particularly concerned about what other people think about them.

Gu says women smokers tend to be of higher social and economic status than many male smokers, who inhale to relieve stress.

Many new women smokers are professionals, such as businesswomen, entertainers, artists, designers and students.

"Smoking is part of my personal style, just like my bag, the leggings and the boots I wear," says 19-year-old Lena Li, in her second year at the Shanghai Art and Design Institute.

She wears a chic short black one-piece with rectangular patterns, a pair of deep blue leggings and a pair of black high-heel boots. She looks trendy and more mature than her age.

Li started smoking about eight months ago, when she and a roommate went to a nightclub for the first time. They met older graduates from the school, all designers.

"They all smoked, both men or women," says Li.

It was the first time she saw her roommate smoke. "I was surprised and felt like a bumpkin. I was so embarrassed when my roommate told them I didn't smoke," recalls Li.

She soon took up the style - tight shirt, heavy makeup, high-heel boots and a cigarette. She was relieved to realize that so many other students smoke.

Like many women smokers, Li prefers the light and slim "lady's cigarettes."

"These make my hand look gracefully long and thin," says Li.

Many women's smokes have cute and colorful packs, and some brands come in honey, fruit, mocha, chocolate and other flavors. They don't have that same heavy tobacco smoke odor (but that doesn't mean they are safe).

All cigarettes sold in China carry warning labels, but no off-putting death's heads.

'I Love You'

Li's favorite is the Taiwan-made slim cigarette called "520." In Chinese, the number "520," wu er ling, stands for wo ai ni, or "I love you." The pronunciation is similar.

The cigarette is even longer than other ladies' slims and contains a red heart-shaped filter.

Because of their flavor and the reduced tobacco smell, many women's cigarettes seem like stylish, harmless taste treats.

Some manufacturers claim their ladies' cigarettes contain less harmful tar and nicotine than other cigarettes.

But any content is too much, according to Yang Peilan, vice director of the respiratory department at Yueyang Hospital, and inhaling burned flavored additives may also be harmful.

And, though many women take up smoking for reasons of style, continued smoking is addictive and smoke kills.

"It felt strange at first. I felt like I was committing a crime when I smoked outside the nightclubs," says Li.

"But the feeling soon faded. I feel like part of the designers group when I smoke."

She is not the only one who felt guilty.

Twenty-eight-year-old Amanda Chen, a marketing manager at a local trading company, still feels like a thief when she smokes. Chen started smoking three years ago when she was depressed about her failed relationship and stressful competitive job.

"I know it is bad for health, but I was just so stressed that I needed a way to release the pressure. It's okay as long as I quit before getting pregnant," she says.

Chen is keenly aware of the images of women smokers as loose and unladylike, so she set rules for herself from Day One. She never smokes in public places so she won't be caught by acquaintances; she keeps the window open when she smokes at home. She lives by herself but doesn't want surprise visitors to smell cigarette smoke.

To cover up the smell of tobacco smoke, Chen buys all kinds of expensive perfume.

The only two people who know that she smokes are her boyfriend, himself a smoker for seven years, and her best friend from college. Both urged her to quit.

"I can tell myself that it's okay to smoke as a woman. We are already in the 21st century, men and women are equal. But deep inside, I'm afraid of what my parents, my clients, my boss, my colleagues and my friends would think of me if they found out that I smoke," says Chen.

Wicked women

Chen ascribes the negative images of women smokers to old Chinese movies, especially war movies. The smart, brave and good-hearted heroine never smokes although good-hearted heroes often do. The only women who are the seductive women spies, decadent entertainers or prostitutes.

"Our parents and we have all seen these movies dozens of times, hence the image is strong. Even in modern movies or serial dramas, it's still rare to see a heroine smoke," says Chen.

Chen's boyfriend, David Zhang, has been trying to make her quit since the day he found out about her habit, though he is also a heavy chain smoker.

He fell in love with Chen two years ago, when he saw her in a stylish little black dress - no cigarette. Zhang was shocked when he saw her smoking for the first time, six months after they started dating.

"I always feel uncomfortable when I see women smoking," says Zhang. "I figure they must be hookers if they are young and pretty and must be workers without much education if they are old.

"Maybe I'm too extreme, but it's true that when I see a young woman smoking, I have the feeling that it won't be too difficult to get hooked up with her," he adds.

Zhang and Chen have gotten into many fights over the smoking problem, especially when Chen asks, "Why are you not a gigolo since you smoke as well?" Zhang doesn't know how to answer or persuade Chen. He just says, "It's definitely bad. You shouldn't do it."

The two reached a truce when Chen promised that she would quit smoking two years before getting pregnant - they plan to be married. Pregnancy is a major reason many women quit.


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