Marketing Alcohol, Tobacco and Unhealthy Food to Women: the New Affirmative Action

credit: Center on Alcohol Marketing to Youth
credit: Center on Alcohol Marketing to Youth

While the rest of our society still struggles to provide equal employment and educational opportunities for girls and women, the alcohol, tobacco and processed food industries have embraced affirmative action to market their lethal but legal products to women.  A few days after  International Women’s Day, it is worth asking why. 


In recent years, the longevity advantage that women have enjoyed over men has shrunk.   In 1970, women in the United States lived 7.6 years longer than men. By 2011, the advantage was less than five years, a 37 percent decline. Between 1992 and 2006, female mortality rose in more than 40 percent of U.S. counties.  One important reason for this falling gender gap in longevity has been the increased marketing of unhealthy food, tobacco and alcohol to women. 


The recent report from the US Centers for Disease Control that obesity rates for children aged 2 to 5 dropped by 43% in the last decade is welcome news for those who hope for a healthier America in fifty years.  Sadly, the more immediate story from the CDC shows flat or even increasing obesity rates for every other population group. One group that did much worse was women aged 60 and older, of whom 38 percent were obese, an increase of more than 20 percent since 2003-2004.


Since General Mills created Betty Crocker in 1921, the food industry has advertised to women. As more females moved into the workforce, new marketing opportunities arose. With fewer hours for cooking, women turned to makers of processed food and fast food outlets. To relieve the stresses of balancing family and work demands, some women turned to heavily advertised high sugar, fat and salt foods. These “fun-for-you”foods led many women to gain weight which in turn created a growing market for diet and “good for you” foods.  By marketing both products that contribute to obesity and those that claim to help dieters lose weight, companies like PepsiCo, Kellogg and Nestle have found a way to have their cake and eat it.


In the food, alcohol and tobacco industries, as adult male markets became saturated, better off men quit smoking or drinking or cut down on unhealthy foods, and victims of too much alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food died, marketers of these products targeted women(and young people) to become the new source of profits.  Today, young women are prime markets for Big Alcohol.  For example, as men started to drink less hard liquor, Smirnoff began in 2000 aggressively marketing a new women and youth oriented product Smirnoff Ice, portraying it as a path to glamour and sophistication. Over the next decade, the company’s sales of all vodka products doubled, more than replacing the lost male market.  As one alcohol company executive told Advertising Age, “the beauty of this category is that it brings in new drinkers, people who really don’t like the taste of beer.”


According to CDC’s most recent Youth Risk Behavioral Survey, 34 percent of female seniors in high school reported that they binge drank at least once in the past month; up from 27 percent in 2011. Each year, 25,000 women and girls die from alcohol-related causes


Cumulatively, this targeting of women by food, alcohol and tobacco companies has had an impact on public health.   A 2013 Institute of Medicine report called U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, found that in comparison to other developed nations, Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high-income countries. This disadvantage has been getting worse for three decades, especially among women, which researchers attributed in part to higher U.S. consumption of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food.


Today, Washington’s obsessive debates about every detail of the rollout of Obamacare seem to be a distraction from the real health crisis facing this country and especially its women.  Will policy makers continue to allow corporations that value their profits over our health to be the de facto deciders on health policy in this country?   Will Big Business and its allies continue to be able to defeat any effort to restrict aggressive or deceptive marketing of their products?


In 2010, 49% of Americans reported one or more chronic diseases. These conditions account for $3 of every $4 spent on health care.  A recent World Health Organization report on chronic diseases identifies tobacco, alcohol and high fat, sugar and salt foods as leading causes of the global increase in chronic diseases.

To date, the food, alcohol and tobacco industries have warned that any effort to restrict their right to promote their profitable and legal products undermines our freedom to eat, drink or smoke what and when we choose. They further claim that main cause of the rise in chronic diseases is mysterious epidemics of increasing irresponsibility and ignorance rather than their marketing practices.These companies make the faux feminist argument that women’s right to consume sickening products with the guys is an essential part of liberation. 


For women, the women’s movement, health professionals and tax payers, accepting these arguments ensures that women’s longevity advantage will continue to shrink.  It also means that any improvements such as better access to health care and more preventive services that the Affordable Care Act may bring will be overwhelmed by the new increasingly female victims of premature deaths and preventable illnesses from tobacco, food and alcohol related chronic diseases.