TOKYO — Her picture appears seemingly everywhere in Tokyo.
Whippet-thin with chiseled cheekbones, wrapped in a silky coat, she stares coolly into the distance as an adoring man nuzzles her neck. A pastel-colored pack of cigarettes floats in the poster's corner, the brand name - "Vogue" - visible from 20 feet. In case her European features aren't obvious enough, flowing Japanese script declares, "This woman is Vogue."
Believe it or not, this isn't an ad for women's cigarettes.
Depending on whom you ask, this is either (a) an ad targeted at men, or (b) a reflection of the fact that women smoke, not an encouragement for them to do so.
The answers vary because advertising that encourages women to smoke is forbidden in Japan under a voluntary industry agreement.
Yet in the past 10 years, US tobacco companies have repeatedly run ads for brands such as Virginia Slims using images of liberated, Western, cosmopolitan women. Over the same period, the number of female smokers has climbed and young women in particular have been lighting up in droves.
While many factors contribute to the enticing of women to smoke, officials here have no doubt that advertising plays a role. "The manufacturers were very successful in providing cool images to the consumers," says Ministry of Health and Welfare technical officer Yumiko Mochizuki, when asked to explain the steady rise in female smokers.
Japan's experience with the advertising ban could hold lessons for the US, where Congress is debating sweeping restrictions on tobacco advertising and the White House is urging voluntary restrictions. But the US is also serving as a model for Japan.
Tokyo is just beginning to address tobacco's negative impacts. As the porous advertising ban suggests, it faces an uphill battle. "Until recently, the Ministry of Health and Welfare had an understanding that smoking was entirely up to the individual," says Ms. Mochizuki. "Last year in our White Paper we referred to the negative impact of smoking for the first time. Japan is 30 years behind the US in this respect."
Japan has long been a smoker's paradise - until 1985, the tobacco industry here was a government-run monopoly. Cigarette vending machines are everywhere, public ashtrays dot sidewalks and train platforms, and at night, restaurants are often hazy with smoke. Sixty percent of Japanese men smoke, and statistics show they puff away at one of the highest rates in the world.
Until now, "paradise" has been male. Traditionally, Japanese women who smoked were considered unfeminine. Those who did smoke would rarely, if ever, do so in public. The social stigma was rooted in the belief that motherhood is the purpose of a woman's life and smoking was harmful to children.
The government's advertising ban was based on the "motherhood" argument. Until Japan privatized the tobacco industry in 1985, that ban was watertight. When tariffs on foreign tobacco makers were dropped in 1987, American and British companies joined the Tobacco Institute of Japan. The industry group pledged to voluntarily honor the advertising ban and was also charged with enforcing it.
For tobacco companies faced with increasing regulations and a declining market in North America, Asia's women represent an untapped market worth billions. Income has risen here as the region has modernized, and while a high percentage of men smoke, the rate for women has not risen much beyond 10 percent.
Skirting the ban
Observers say the voluntary restrictions didn't last long. "Philip Morris insisted this [ban] was sexist," says Nobuko Nakano, head of the Tokyo-based group Women's Action on Smoking. "They violated the code many times. A few years ago the ban had some effect, now it has none."
The foreign tobacco manufacturers insist that they adhere to the voluntary ban, but their marketing suggests otherwise. Most use Western women in glamorous, sophisticated, or liberated images to advertise what are considered "women's" brands in their home markets.
US maker Brown & Williamson sells Capri cigarettes here in slim white boxes with a flower-like design on the cover. Past Capri ads have featured a Western woman on a skateboard. R.J. Reynolds is plastering Tokyo with green-and-pink billboards for Salem's Pianissimo cigarettes that feature a Nordic blonde. Philip Morris advertised its Virginia Slims brand with the slogan "Be You" in an ad campaign Japanese women still remember. British producer Rothman's makes and promotes the Vogue brand.
The Tobacco Institute of Japan, now headed by James A. Scully, president of Philip Morris's Japan branch, insists that these billboards and posters target men. Salem says its billboards are designed to appeal to women, but only those who currently smoke. Philip Morris argues that advertising reflects, but does not cause smoking.
That claim runs counter to the findings of a 1992 British government study cited by the World Health Organization, that "advertising does have a positive effect on consumption."
Other factors certainly contribute to the rise in female smokers here. Some observers cite stress, saying that more Japanese women are smoking to relax as more enter the work force. Others argue that smoking is one arena in which women can have equality with men. Media influence is also cited: Many women on popular Japanese TV dramas smoke.
But the power of fashion and advertising images comes up again and again, especially their impact on the young women among whom smoking is increasing most rapidly. The ads impress high school graduate Noriko Kawada. She started smoking in school because she thought it was "neat." Today, she admires the women in the tobacco billboards, and the Vogue poster is a favorite. Asked to describe the image it conveys, she thinks while a plume of smoke slowly veils her eyes. "Cool," she says.