IN 1908, Katie Mulcahey of New York was arrested for smoking a cigarette in public. She was striking a match against a wall to light her cigarette when she was nabbed.
The law there at the time – though controversial – forbade women from smoking in public.
The reason behind the prohibition was not that smoking was seen as a health hazard but more because society there then cast female smokers as indecent women.
In other words, the arrest served as a clear message that ‘good girls’ do not smoke – so, as a rule, girls should not smoke.
Even today, 100 years later, that same message still seems to hold with some people.
They still don’t appear to have a good opinion of women who smoke, especially young girls who pick up the habit.
Although health advocates have resorted to using the law to stop people from smoking, many continue to smoke. And that includes girls who somehow get lured into taking up smoking, despite the anti-smoking drive.
Can such a phenomenon be attributed to a kind of low morality among women?
Although many people like to think so, it can still be a controversial topic. Women smokers, for example, could challenge us by asking would what they have done be much worse than the many other bad things done by those who don’t smoke?
Such a retort can make us think this is, indeed, a grey area not easily settled with clear judgement – both ways.
However, putting aside the criticisms, perhaps we can be less judgemental by adopting a more objective approach. For instance, we can be just curious and want to know why some women have picked up the smoking habit.
thesundaypost talked to some female smokers to find out what they had to say about their habit. Nearly all their names have been changed.
“Why do you smoke, Cindy?” a young girl, still in secondary school, was asked.
“Why do I smoke?” she repeated the question with a puzzled look and grimaced.
Then breaking into a chuckle, she replied, “I don’t know. I guess, I’m just being naughty. Maybe I just want to have fun or look more mature.
“Actually, it started with seeing some of my male schoolmates smoking and showing off. They made cat calls and sometimes tried to bully me. I didn’t like that. So, one day I showed them I, too, could smoke.”
Cindy’s case could be just one reason why and how teenage girls start to smoke.
Some girls confess they smoke because they feel cool. There are also those who are rebellious or want to be seen as tough.
Some think they look fashionable and even sensual when seen with a cigarette between their fingers and blowing smoke into the air. Others resort to tobacco use because of stress or other forms of frustration.
There was a woman so disappointed with her husband, children and in-laws that she left and turned to alcohol, gambling, and smoking to drown her depression.
Another smoker, 30-year-old Bibi started at 16.
Bibi said she was being a little mischievous and playful in the company of like-minded friends. Before she knew it, she was hooked and couldn’t kick her addiction.
Later, her parents and siblings found out about her habit and were visibly shocked. Naturally she got reprimanded but Bibi continued to smoke behind their backs.
By the time she started working, she was already quite a heavy smoker. With a job, she could afford to buy cigarettes. Eventually, her family accepted her for who she was – a smoker in the house.
Bibi said somehow she still tried her best not to let some of her relatives know about her being a smoker.
“Some of them have sort of a ‘holier than thou’ attitude and I fear they may look upon me with disdain and make my family feel uncomfortable.”
On average, Bibi smokes at least 10 cigarettes a day. She starts her day with a cigarette upon waking up. She smokes while driving to work and has a stick or two before and after meals.
She chain-smokes when hanging out with friends in a bar after work, puffing away on one cigarette after another to the extent of finishing two packets (40 sticks) a night.
Asked if she faced any negative reaction from society for being a smoker – especially a female smoker – Bibi recalled there was one time she received a lot of “uncomfortable stares” from the public when she was in Brunei even though she was smoking at a designated zone.
“They looked me as if I were a kind of strange creature. It could be because I was the only woman seen smoking there at the time. I did feel a bit uneasy but I just ignored the intimidating glances and continued to smoke.”
She pointed out that so far it is not against the law for women to smoke.
She feels it is not right to look upon women smokers as bad people, noting that in big cities where people are more liberal and mind their own business, such prejudice isn’t so obvious.
Injurious to health
Bibi, however, conceded that smoking is injurious to health and she would not encourage anyone to smoke.
She said another bad thing that usually came with smoking is drinking, adding that from what she had observed, eight out of 10 women smokers were usually also drinkers, although, she noted, in bars or pubs, there were heavy women drinkers who never light up a cigarette.
Bibi advised against smoking when there are babies or children around as they could inhale the second-hand smoke.
She also advised pregnant women not to smoke. Although she is a smoker who has never really made an effort to quit, Bibi said she would still advise other smokers to quit if they could.
As for those who had never smoked, she said it would be wisest to not think of starting because once addicted, it would be very hard to quit.
“And for girls or women, if you want to look beautiful, my advice is don’t smoke. Your lips will be pinkish if you don’t smoke. Look at mine – they have gotten dark because of smoking,” she chuckled.
Civil servant Dolly Saches Cox confessed she has been smoking for nearly 10 years.
The 30-year-old smokes at least eight sticks a day and could finish two packets (14 sticks each) if she hangs out with friends on weekends.
Dolly said she started smoking when she went to college. She found out that some of her college mates smoked to cope with the stress of studies and doing assignments.
“Most of the smokers were boys. Some claimed smoking gave them the inspiration and ideas to do their assignments.”
Out of curiosity, Dolly gave it a try and found it to be somewhat true. Moreover, the boys didn’t mind her joining them for a smoke.
“They believed if smoking could help boys alleviate stress, it could also do the same for girls,” she said.
However, Dolly still wondered whether or not smoking could really relieve stress or was it just wishful thinking.
After smoking for the fun of it at first, she soon realised she had developed an addition when she started craving for cigarettes and would go all out to get some when she ran out.
Dolly goes for a yearly health check-up to keep track of her health status.
Bad girl perception
On the perception girl smokers are bad girls, she said, “I do my job properly and I don’t let my smoking interfere with my duties. I cannot stop people from thinking I’m bad because I smoke.”
Dolly said she is always careful not to let her smoking disturb non-smokers, knowing people have the right to clean air.
She would make sure her cigarette smoke does not affect others, especially children, babies, or pregnant women.
She said her boyfriend advised her to stop smoking if she ever got pregnant – and she has agreed for the sake of the baby.
Dolly said she never tried to hide her habit from her family although her mother did advise her to quit.
Dolly’s advice to non-smokers is also not to start because it’s very hard to stop.
Ivy, who has been smoking for 20 years, said she picked up the habit from her boyfriend in college. She smokes 12 packets a month.
She said although there are smokers who outlive non-smokers, it does not mean she isn’t worried about her health.
“I do go for check-up once a year, and to compensate for whatever bad effects my smoking may do to my health, I make sure my diet is good.”
She believes most people become smokers because of peer pressure.
“If you mix with smokers, you can easily pick up the habit,” she said, adding, “Nine out of 10 of my friends are smokers. That’s why I’m also a smoker.”
Ivy said although some people might think she’s a bad woman because she smokes, it is enough for her to know she is not a bad person in any other way except for being a smoker.
“I think it’s the same with how people stereotype those with tattoos as bad people or gangsters. They don’t see tattooed people as enthusiasts of body art.”
Ivy said she would always be considerate to non-smokers and would not smoke especially at eateries – even those without any ‘No Smoking’ warnings – unless she could get a well-ventilated spot at a far corner of the premises. Even then, she would make sure the breeze did not carry the cigarette smoke to other patrons.
In any case, Ivy said most times, she would go and smoke in her car after eating at coffee shops.
“It’s a matter of one being thoughtful. Cigarette smoke can waft to the next table and annoy the customers.
“We must bear in mind there are people who can get offended by the smell of cigarettes – on top of the health hazards they fear they might get from inhaling the smoke.
“Some people may not like their young children to see people smoking lest the youngsters wrongly think smoking is macho.”
Irresponsible smokers chided
Ivy chided smokers who did not care about how other people feel about smoking in public places, especially at food courts and eateries.
“They don’t care whether their cigarette smoke suffocates others nearby or not. They forget some non-smokers are disgusted by the smell of cigarette smoke.”
According to Ivy, only her mother nagged her for smoking.
“She’s just concerned I might be projecting a negative image of myself. As for others, I’m not concerned about how they look at me. I just make sure I don’t break any rule at places where smoking is prohibited.”
She said when she went to the Philippines, it was a common to see women smoking – young or old – and nobody seemed to care.
Ivy said her smoking did not affect her career as her employer regarded the habit as a personal matter. But she has heard of some employers being ungracious towards female workers who smoked.
In general, she found men tended to be more open, casual and amicable towards women smokers.
“My men friends treat me okay. They can talk to me because they know I won’t judge them. But, curiously, they tend to be more tense or reserved when it comes to interacting with their non-smoking women friends. It’s like they regard women smokers as more open-minded and less judgmental.”
Sales and marketing agent Sara said she once got discriminated against at a job interview for being a smoker.
“I was honest about it and I could see the face of the interviewer (a woman) change immediately – from smiling to frowning,” the 37-year-old recalled.
She was taking something out from her bag and the interviewer saw her lighter and asked her about it.
Sara admitted she is smoker and that, she said, hurt her chance of getting the job, adding, “It was so obvious.”
She has experienced a lot of smoking-related incidents, saying it might be that she has to deal with many older people from conservative places.
“Personally, I think in our society, smokers of both genders can carry a stigma. In my job now, we are discouraged from smoking in front of clients. It’s a company rule, so we have no problems complying,” she said.
Dolly Saches Cox