Women and Tobacco in Sri Lanka

This post was published in the “International Network of woman against Tobacco” journal, November 2019 Volume.

Link to the publication- International Network of Woman against Tobacco

Sri Lanka, a small island nation in South Asia, hosts a population of 20.2 million people. Influenced by Buddhism that teaches respect to all living beings and an Asian culture that values motherhood, the country has always placed women in a powerful social position. The country’s free health and education systems, together with the aforementioned value system, allow women to be educated with enrolment rates similar to men for schools, and higher than men for universities. Sri Lankan women have a higher life expectancy than their regional neighbours. The country produced the first female Prime Minister in the world in the early 1970’s and a female President two decades later.

Tobacco was introduced to Sri Lanka during the Portuguese invasion. Supported by the colonial government, British American Tobacco (BAT) initiated the cigarette trade in the early 1900’s. BAT still holds the largest stake in the trade, owning 84% of Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC); the monopoly holder for manufacturing and selling cigarettes in Sri Lanka. In the past decade, tobacco smoking among men has reduced from around 40% to 22%, and is going out-of-fashion as  has other forms of tobacco use (betel quid with tobacco and beedi) . However, one in five men still smoke tobacco in Sri Lanka.

Comparatively, the smoking rate among women has never surpassed the 1% mark. This is despite a range of tactics used by the industry on Sri Lankan women to get them addicted to its product such as targeted advertisements, product placements, free distribution at social events with young women, employing female models to smoke near female schools, introducing brands “for women”, and targeted promotion campaigns through social media. The resistance to these precious and influences is due mainly to the country’s bottom-up tobacco control campaigns that have constantly engaged woman at the grass root level, improving their resilience.  This is backed by a Buddhist Asian culture and a value system that motivates resistance to overindulgence, encourages   a leadership role at the household level managing limited resources for the betterment of their family.

The targeting of Sri Lankan women by the tobacco industry was not only related to increasing its user base. When the country’s first (and only) female President established a “Presidential Task Force” (PTF) to strengthen tobacco, alcohol, and illicit substance control in Sri Lanka, she was constantly targeted by the tobacco industry via different tactics. Image 1 is an excerpt from a BAT internal document, in which a local CTC Director explains to the BAT patrons how rigorous the intervention was because the CTC was not able to prevent a comprehensive ban on advertisements and promotions that was implemented in 1999.

At the community level, empowered girls and women are in a continuous battle with the industry’s interference, not only to safeguard themselves from its addictive product, but also to safeguard the country’s policies from the Industry’s negative influence (Image 2). At the grass roots level, community groups working to control tobacco are mainly led by women. When the industry legally challenged the implementation of pictorial health warnings in 2014, the majority of protestors on the streets were women. Thus, Sri Lankan women are a major and a powerful stakeholder group in tobacco control in Sri Lanka, not only resisting to fall for tobacco industry tactics to get them to be users of its products, but also intervening in the  industry’s interference in their country’s public health.

[Image 1: An excerpt from a British American Tobacco internal document explaining the attempted interference aimed at the Sri Lankan President related to the advertisement ban in 1999]









[Image 2: A photograph of two school girls in a rural area with a public petition they developed pleading their community to make their village smoke-free]

















Manuja N. Perera

Senior Lecturer in Public Health, Faculty of Medicine University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka &

Editor, Centre for Combating Tobacco, Sri Lanka

International Network of Woman against Tobacco

November 2019

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