Peddling cigarettes all day on the streets of Phnom Penh, Ouch Sam has learned something about the lure of her product.
“Cigarettes,” she said, “are more important for smokers than rice.”
And it is no longer just men coming to Ouch Sam to satisfy their tobacco cravings. She has been selling more cigarettes to women, which she said is only right.
“Ladies should enjoy it, too,” Ouch Sam said.
And they do.
Cambodian women may lag behind men in education and career opportunities, but when it comes to smoking, they regretfully are catching up, women’s rights organizations and an anti-smoking group said.
A recently released nationwide survey and interviews with women suggest the trend is being driven by women’s desire to be more like Western women and more equal to Cambodian men.
“We met many female smokers during our interviews. More young girls are smoking,” said Yel Daravuth, project manager with the Adventist Development and Relief Organization.
The number of women smokers in Phnom Penh has increased from 5 percent in 1997 to 8 percent in 1999, according to an ADRA study conducted last year among more than 3,000 women and men. A smaller-scale survey of 300 women by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs last year found one in three women in Kandal province smoke. The study also found two-thirds of men in the capital smoke, a figure that has remained almost the same over the past five years.
However, a recent survey by British American Tobacco, a major cigarette manufacturer in Cambodia, found very different results for both men and women.
The survey shows the number of both male and female smokers has decreased in the last three years, said Carrick Graham, head of BAT corporate affairs. He said only 2 percent of Phnom Penh women and 5 percent of women nationwide are smokers. And, he said, only one in five men nationwide now smoke cigarettes—a figure substantially lower than ADRA’s estimate.
But women’s rights advocates and anti-smoking groups say more Cambodian women are definitely smoking today. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and ADRA recently held a conference on the issue, where experts and smokers said more women are smoking because they want to lose weight, be more like Western women and be equal to men.
Anti-smoking groups criticized the entertainment industry for promoting smoking among women of developing countries. “Girls want to make themselves modern,” said Mom Kong, training coordinator with ADRA. “Just like in foreign films.”
A 30-year-old woman visiting Phnom Penh from Poipet said it’s simply an issue of equality.
“Hasn’t a girl got a mouth, too?” questioned the woman, who said she smokes cigarettes to forget her marital woes. She said her husband supports her smoking, saying it is better than eating traditional betel nut, which would color her teeth. “Tobacco companies produce cigarettes for everybody,” she said.
Others say smoking is a man’s pleasure. A moto-taxi driver who identified himself as Rin said he believes women smokers are destroying the traditional honor of Khmer women. “How can I stop her if I smoke, too?” he said.
Experts blame the increase in women smokers on a lack of education and the strong influence of tobacco advertisements.
“Some lung disease patients blame terrible working conditions during the Pol Pot regime, instead of blaming smoking as a cause,” said Kiev Serey Vuthea, director of the Women’s Affairs Ministry’s health department. Even those who acknowledge the dangers of tobacco are reluctant to quit smoking, she said.
While men risk getting lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses from smoking, women are also at risk for having a child with birth defects if they smoke while pregnant, experts say.
Eng Kantha Phavy, secretary of state for the Women’s Affairs Ministry, wants the government to regulate advertisements.
“Advertisement is very influential,” she said. “Young people want to be an adult with smoking because they think smoking makes them more courageous.”
In Cambodia, the government has ordered cigarette makers to publicize the health risks of smoking when they promote their products, said Khieu Kanharith, government spokesman and secretary of state for the Ministry of Information, which regulates advertisements and commercials.
Khieu Kanharith also acknowledged tobacco companies have a right to advertise their products. “Advertisements on TV last only a few minutes,” Khieu Kanharith said. The major problem, he said, is with films. “I don’t want films that show actors and actresses smoking cigarettes,” he said.
A draft law regulating commercial activities of tobacco companies has been buried since 1997 when an inter-ministerial committee discussed it, according to ADRA.
Graham, of BAT, which targets its products to both men and women, said tobacco companies cannot be blamed if a woman decides to take up cigarettes.
“Smoking is an adult choice,” he said.