At first glance, two billboards high above a Boston expressway could pass for giant travel posters. On one, a winsome blonde frolics on a beach. On the other, an attractive brunette poses in front of a waterfall.
But look again. These slender young women have nothing to do with travel and everything to do with another T word, tobacco. They are models for cigarette ads, designed to hook women -young women in particular - on nicotine.
"You've Got Merit!" reads the first sign, hinting that smoking bolsters self-worth. "B Kool" urges the second. Nearby, a third cigarette billboard reads, "It's a woman thing."
Tobacco companies have long held a special spot in their hearts for women, courting them aggressively. Tactics include everything from marketing slim cigarettes with the now-famous slogan, "You've come a long way, baby" to underwriting women's political events.
As the tobacco industry faces mounting lawsuits, fines, and public bans on smoking, its messages to women are growing bolder. Instead of the feminine tone of earlier ads, filled with daisies and meadows, new ads often take a more masculine approach tinged with defiance.
One double-page ad in the current Mademoiselle - a magazine with many teenage readers - shows a young woman at a pool table. She says, "I'm not all sugar & spice. And neither are my smokes."
Hollywood is playing its part, too, as more actors and actresses light up in movies. In "My Best Friend's Wedding," Julia Roberts smokes repeatedly. Although her role as a romance-wrecker gives her a slightly bad-guy persona in the film, her beauty and popularity make her influential, on-screen and off.
The proliferation of no-smoking laws represents heartening progress. Just last week, California instituted the nation's toughest antismoking measure, banning smoking in nightclubs, bars, and hotel lobbies. Yet as smokers become less visible, it's easy to think antitobacco forces are winning.
It is far too early to pack up all the ashtrays and declare a victory. Although smoking appears to be leveling off among eighth-graders, according to a new study by the University of Michigan, it continues to increase among 12th-graders. Adolescent girls' use of cigarettes nearly doubled between 1991 and 1995, primarily among white, middle-class girls, according to a Health and Human Services study. A 1995 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 40 percent of white female high-schoolers smoked. Only 12 percent of black female students did.
This month Congress begins deliberations on a proposed $368.5 billion settlement between five major tobacco companies and state attorneys general. Its conditions include eliminating billboards and limiting magazine ads to publications for adults. Those steps, if implemented, would help. But clever marketing accounts for only one factor persuading adolescents to smoke. Peer pressure and the relentless desire to be thin remain powerful forces as well.
What else can be done?
*Find celebrities who no longer smoke, and develop a public-service campaign with the theme, "I quit. So can you."
*Make teenage girls aware of the hazards smoking poses to their beauty and reproductive health. Tell them about premature wrinkles, raspy voices, and the risk of infertility.
*Pressure magazines for young women to refuse to accept cigarette ads - now. Television networks have survived without revenue from tobacco companies. So can print media.
Only when girls understand that tobacco is uncool will the next generation of women truly have come a long way. Equal-opportunity addiction hardly represents progress.