Many women young and old devote a significant amount of time to reading women's magazines. Some turn to these publications for relaxation and/or to review the latest fashions, but others also seek reliable lifestyle and health information. Those seeking medical advice will often depend more on these magazine articles than on their doctors or other healthcare professionals.
Is their trust justified? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Office of Women's Health, approximately 22 million adult women currently smoke cigarettes and more than 140,000 women die each year from smoking-related diseases. Yet, research has shown that popular women's magazines give little or no coverage to some of the most serious health conditions that result from smoking cigarettes (Whelan, 1996). During the 1970s, the health topics covered in popular women's magazines were found not to include lung cancer or the other myriad dangers of cigarette smoking, despite knowledge that the death rates from lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease and the number of women smokers were all increasing (Weston & Ruggiero, 1985). Popular magazines among African-American women from 1987 to 994 also did not cover tobacco-related cancers (Hoffman-Goetz et al., 1997).
In contrast to the shortage of health articles addressing the negative aspects of smoking, women's magazines were found to carry a high number of cigarette advertisements (Krupka et al., 1990). More disturbing, however, was the apparent message of independence, self-reliance, attractiveness, and leanness of female smokers often portrayed in these advertisements. Additionally, those women's magazines that included cigarette advertisements were reported to have little or nothing to say about the hazards of smoking (Warner et al., 1992).
Thus, the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) evaluated a representative sample of women's magazines (12 women's magazines with a large female readership for the period from August 1999 through August 2000) to determine the quantity and nature of their health, lifestyle and fitness messages. We used as an indicator the magazines' acceptance of cigarette advertisements. We then assessed the presence of smoking-related messages in their articles and photographs. Finally, we evaluated the quality and nature of the magazines' health messages. Of particular interest was how the magazines' coverage of the profound health problems associated with smoking, especially lung cancer, compared to that of other real or alleged health risks.
The ACSH survey revealed that these women's magazines accepted cigarette advertisements and published many health-related articles, but that the overwhelming majority of these articles focused on fitness, mental health, nutrition, gynecology, and diet; less than one percent of the health-related articles had an anti-smoking theme. Moreover, there was no shortage of cigarette ads. These findings show the hypocrisy of women's magazines that advocate for healthy lifestyles yet continue to publish cigarette advertisements and fail to provide adequate coverage on the health-related consequences of smoking.
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