Ladies, it is not ‘cool’ or ’empowering’ to smoke

Published: November 5, 2013

"All the intellectual, arty women I knew smoked. So, it must be cool." PHOTO: FILE

I still remember how my brothers would deftly hide their cigarettes when ammi or abba entered the room. Those were the best and worst of times – times of unawareness and lightheartedness, when I’d sit for hours in a smoke-filled room with my brothers – chatting and laughing over senseless things like one only can with siblings.

All that while, I was inhaling 250 toxins and carcinogens, quite unsuspectingly. I didn’t know any better and neither did my siblings. We were secure in our belief that we, the girls, were not smoking actively.

Fast-forward life.

As a teenager, I started interning at a magazine and this is where smoking began to look ‘cool’ to me. Even as a woman. I saw my seniors, mostly women – bright, accomplished and sincere women, all trying to make a difference to society – weaving words beautifully story after story. These were people I looked up to and they all had a cigarette pack on their table.

What was an innocent teenager supposed to think?

Obviously, that it was cool to smoke.

After all, this was something that all brainy, intelligent, arty and literati types did. Consequently, I began to believe that this was something that helps the creative process; something that helps one act with clarity; gets the creative juices flowing, so to say.

On the other hand, I also came to see smoking as something you rely on when you have a break-up or when you hang out with friends. It was one of the lesser evils; in fact, since everyone around me was doing it, it didn’t seem all that evil at all.

Of course, being a woman and smoking somehow made it seem even cooler.

Having said that, fortunately enough, I did not go on to become an active smoker, but I have at some level, like many of us, equated smoking as a right that I have as much as a man does.

Then, the other day, in a room full of journalists talking about lung health in the 44th Union World Conference on Lung Health in Paris, a speaker cut through the jargon and made a point that hit me. According to him, research shows that,

“Women say we have rights equal to those of men. So they say ‘hey, I have an equal right to lung cancer’!”

That literally jarred me into re-thinking my perspective on smoking. Of course, I knew all of this already but had somewhere along the line simply chosen to stop reading more into it.

Experts reveal that in stage two of the tobacco epidemic, smoking in females rises by 50%. It seems that Pakistan’s urban cities are already there.

Did you know that cigarettes are the only legal consumer product in the world that has the potential to kill half its users?

They carry 700 chemicals that include carcinogens, can affect one’s immune system and cause greater susceptibility to respiratory tract diseases. Moreover, smoking takes away the glow and sheen of our skin, hair and nails over time and leaves us looking lifeless. Yet, we can’t seem to stop smoking. Why?

Simply because it is one of the most addictive substances in the world that quite literally re-wires the brain.

Talking to a female journalist friend, I asked her how she started smoking. She replied,

“It all started off as a new experience, just a couple of friends trying something new. Also, at some point there was that feeling that I too can do anything I want as a woman. But once you ‘grow up’, you really see how stupid it is.”

However, in most cases by the time one realises how stupid smoking really is, one is already too far gone to get off the addiction. At least, too far gone to get off it easily.

It’s funny how humans are strangely stupid most of the time. We walk around thinking that we know it all, while in reality, we are basically sponges. We absorb what’s around us. We are conditioned to believe what’s cool and what’s not. We are affected by what’s around us. We are always changing, evolving and growing, but sometimes the changes take us in the wrong direction.

However, therein lies hope as well. Since we are creatures of habit, it is in us to undo certain habits. We can learn and unlearn. So, it is possible to push our boundaries by questioning ourselves too.

While women smokers are definitely on the rise all over the world, we tend to forget that women are also more susceptible to certain health risks than men when it comes to smoking. For instance, they are much more likely to develop arthritis than men if they smoke, and 14 per cent of pre-term deliveries happen to mothers who smoke during pregnancy.

As a gender activist, I believe that humans are equal, irrespective of their gender. So, as far as I am concerned, the reduction in the gender gap is generally a good thing; but does that mean that I must make the same mistakes as men?

Will that make me feel more emancipated, free and able?

I would be dumb to believe that, right?

Unfortunately, I suspect at times I may have been just that.

Now, let’s get to some more hard facts.

Smoking causes 5.4 million deaths each year.That means that out of the 1 billion smokers alive today, 50 million will die because of tobacco use.

Tobacco will kill some 175 million or more people between now and the year 2030. And I, for one, do not want to be one of them. Although I truly believe that death is not something we can control, we do have the ability to make informed decisions about how we want to lead our lives.

It almost shames me to think that in spite of knowing all these statistics, I chose to conveniently forget them and lived in a state of denial that this self-destructive addiction is simply part of being a creative person.

At the conference, Indian journalist and TV presenter Lotty Alaric, nailed it when she said,

 “I don’t smoke because l don’t need a four inch paper roll billowing smoke to measure my cool quotient. I’m too secure a woman to rely on that.”

So, whether it is a secret desire to be able to do what men can, or simply a bad habit, it’s time to call it quits.

Ladies first, please.

Should tobacco be declared an illegal substance?

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Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of marketing and corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets on @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • ZElahi

    Although the article has lots of facts in it, I wonder why it’s particularly directed towards women? Would have been more meaningful if the gender pointer in the article had been avoided making it more generic, only providing facts for both sexes.Recommend

  • trulyawful

    if only there were an eyeroll big enough for the generalizations and misogynistic moralizing in this articleRecommend

  • Hala Syed

    Why is an article about smoking so sexist? I agree with most of the things you say. Obviously smoking is not cool. People who believe it makes them look intellectual or creative are delusional. But what does this have to do with women?

    why did you have to mention women in particular about 50 times as if the reasons women smoke are completely different from the reasons men smoke.

    “so, whether it is a secret desire to be able to do what men can” really? so man “can” smoke and women can only desire to be like them?

    i am a non smoker and actively discourage people to smoke (both men and women)
    but if someone suggests a ban on women smoking, i will vehemently oppose that.
    smoking does not in any way make you more emancipated free and able.
    but taking away someones choices based on their gender does not either.

    i am not saying women should smoke. no one should smoke. its a stupid bad habit. but saying women should not smoke because it makes them less feminine (which is said a lot) is problematic.
    again i support your conclusion but you say your a gender activist and yet clearly you seem to have different rules for men and womenRecommend

  • Nobody

    While it’s generally agreed that smoking is a bad habit, man or woman, I think this blog missed the mark. Instead of addressing both genders, you made it all about women. In countries like Pakistan, there are still more male smokers to date so addressing only women seems futile.
    Furthermore, I don’t know any women who take up the habit for a reason different than that of men. Young people are susceptible, they may think it’s cool. The “cool” factor is also applicable to both.
    As far as it causing more health problems in women, I’ve heard no such thing except when it comes to smoking during pregnancy of course. Arthritis being more common in women is more a hormonal issue than a smoking issue.
    Encouraging people to quit smoking is a positive thing; addressing only one gender changes the focus from ‘smoking: a health issue’ to ‘smoking: a feminism issue.’Recommend

  • 123xyz

    smoking should be discouraged not banned.

    it has carcinogens , so does millions of other things we use in our daily lives.Recommend

  • tattu mian

    ban tobacco

    legalize weedRecommend

  • Sardar Alam Khan

    Informative piece, well-written. I wish I could quit smoke easily, but it doesn’t seem to be that easy until there is a big determination for itRecommend

  • Fact Checker

    Just a quick correction: No study has been able to PROVE that all these diseases you talk about are CAUSED by smoking. There is only a high correlation and correlation is not causation.Recommend

  • Insaan

    I agree with 123XYZ, smoking does not kill you instantly, why ban it.
    In only increases chances of getting some serious diseases that can kill you or kill people who get second hand smoke. Feel free to smoke around your kids.
    Smoking can only cause few serious diseases what is the big deal.
    • Heart attack & Stroke – With the narrowing of arteries and veins to and fro from the heart, due to the elevated pressure, there are greater chances for heart attacks. Also the narrowing of blood vessels and formation of clots in the brain causes stroke. • Lung cancer – The toxins released as a result of smoking is the prime reason behind most of the Lung cancer cases in the United States. • Stomach ulcers & heartburns – With the constant acid reflux, there are greater chances for the ulceration of the stomach lining. • Vision degeneration – With increased risks of cataracts and macular degeneration, incessant smoking may also result in permanent blindness. • Reproductive abnormalities – Reducing the fertility of both men and women, smoking has been linked to many of reproductive disorders of men like low sperm count, erectile dysfunction etc. • Skin disorder – Early wrinkling associated with premature ageing is the most widely accounted skin disorder associated with smoking. – See more at:

  • Ahmed Iqbal

    In Pakistan, middle class do everything but represent itself. I mean why these intellectuals with a writing spree tend to generalize things which hardly correlate with common practices of vast majority? Every middle-class, house-bound woman is unconscious victim of such articles. And no, they don’t share rooms with smoking siblings!Recommend

  • Faraz Talat

    It’s the “especially for women” part that I find disturbing when it comes to discouraging smoking.

    Smoking is widely advertised as a ‘guy thing’ (remember the macho Malboro man?). Female smokers, in addition to being viewed as unhealthy, are seen as immoral, uncultured, anorexics, and worst of all, “too maadran”.

    It’s the sexism that needs to go. Otherwise, it’s understood that smoking kills. It says so on the box.Recommend

  • naamaloom

    Because she has no idea that sexism is not a pastime of men only! And she focuses on ‘human rights’ and ‘gender’ issues! jeezRecommend

  • Hadeel Naeem

    Women shouldn’t smoke because men can pull it off better?
    Tar and Nicotine becomes Vitamin for men? And cancer for women?Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    I think you are projecting some internal issues in this blog.

    I don’t smoke. Never have. Hopefully, I never will.

    But I think women who smoke smoke for the same reasons as men, because life is hard and life is ****** up. They do it to relax.

    That being said, in general, yes, smoking is bad.Recommend

  • F

    I started lighting up occasionally, it was more of a social thing than the impression that I look cool. I stopped in between as well. Then pressures and stresses at home, bad relations at home made me start to socialize more to get away from home and start lighting up again. When things got really bad at home, I stopped socializing but took the cigarettes home and smoke at home, using air fresheners and breath mints to ward off the smell from my room or open the window and go to the balcony to sneak a couple. Now I’m a regular smoker, and yes a woman, and I know I need to kick the habit but it does help relieve stresses and in a life with so many uncertainties, it’s been the constant through ups and downs. Also, I don’t know, I hope I will stop ‘one day’ when life gets better and maybe everyone thinks that but all I know for now is that my dependency is too great for me to care about my physical health when I know it’s essential for my emotional sanity. Cheers.Recommend

  • Barood

    Pakistan’s elite suffers from an inferiority complex combined with a post-colonial syndrome.Recommend

  • Parvez

    The image issue, the ‘ cool look ‘ is as much related to the man is it to the woman.
    I may be wrong but I feel that both men and women smoke, more out of an inner insecurity and the cigarette is like a crutch to help him / her along and both, the insecurity and the crutch, feed on each other.
    From first hand experience I know that willpower is paramount in kicking the habit.Recommend

  • Insaan

    Women should not try to do everything just because men do it.

    Smoking increases chances of invasive breast cancer. Smoking during pregnancy can influence child development. The nicotine (the addictive substance in cigarettes), carbon monoxide, and numerous other poisons you inhale from a cigarette are carried through your bloodstream and go directly to your baby.

    In the new study, published online February 28, 2013 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers analyzed data from 73,388 women in the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II) Nutrition Cohort. A cohort is a study that follows a large group of people over time. During more than 13 years of follow-up, researchers counted 3,721 cases of invasive breast cancer. The rate of new cases was 24% higher in smokers than in nonsmokers and 13% higher in former smokers than in nonsmokers.Recommend

  • Custard_Pie_In_Your_Face

    What could have been an informed article turns out to be yet another misandrist piece written by a ‘gender activist’. I mean, who cares if men and young boys are clogging their arteries and lungs with the stuff as long as young women are protected from the adverse effects of smoking.Recommend

  • Sarah Khan

    typical desi attitudeRecommend

  • Working Woman

    Perfectly explained.
    And all those, who are blaming the writer to be sexist, Please have a look at title,”Ladies it is not ‘cool’ or ‘empowering’ to smoke”
    All she has done is addressing Women fellows and highlighted reasons why they happen to smoke. If she is not taking the Men fellows in to account in this very article, it doesn’t mean that smkoing is not hazardous for them. She never mentioned in the whole post.
    Those talking about ‘bans’ , please see that she has no where uttered something like that to be ordered or implemented. So relax !!! ANd preferably take a smoke!!Recommend

  • Amrita Yasin

    WOW. Clearly only the elite read/comment on ET! Among the middle and lower classes, smoking has never been admired but it was always something that only the guys could do. Girls didn’t even have the option. This generation has witnessed a drastic increase in the number of working females and among many other, smoking is one such thing which this female populace seems to be taking up to show they are empowered and equal to men. Smoking is equally bad for both genders but I would argue that the incentive or attitude towards smoking isn’t the same for both genders in today’s Pakistan.
    I really hope smoking indoors in restaurants and such places gets banned.Recommend

  • 123xyz

    oil we but from store is refined by chemicals are carcinogens.

    plastic we use to store food,grains is a carcinogenic.
    i can also copy paste things here to suggest my point.
    ban on tobacco wont stand in any court of law in any democratic country.

    i dont smoke but that doent mean i dont want to others to smoke. if they want they can do it.Recommend

  • Sane

    This post is basically invites smoking to females. This is non-issue as what is the percentage of women population smoke. The writer, I believe does not have depth to sense core issues of this country, so writes about trivial and non-issues.Recommend

  • Khan

    Leave me alone! I smoke and I don’t do it to look cool or feel liberated.. it’s a habit I picked up many years ago and I’m fully aware of how dangerous it is! But I’m a grown up and I can make my own decisions- just back off!

    And why is this so sexist?Recommend

  • Insaan

    Grown up who has become slave to smoking. No one is asking you to stop. Just don’t smoke around your loved ones.Recommend

  • Iram

    Oh god, not the male victim. Nothing more tiresome than the Pakistani man with a victim complex. Go away. You want to stay healthy don’t smoke. WTH are you on about. She is patronising women. Are you saying you want to be patronised, too?Recommend

  • A Man

    @Author: nor is it ‘cool’ or ’empowering’ by being sanctimonious and pretentious enough to generalize women based on a some myopic self assumptions. im not advocating smoking, just asking you to get off your high horse.

    PS: what an absolutely waste of article space where ironically you do more harm than good by talking down to women and implying they are unable to think for themselves.

    PPS: even the most illiterate of people can tell you that smoking is harmful. so what exactly was the point of this male chauvinistic and borderline-narcissistic article?Recommend

  • Farahnaz Zahidi

    Dear readers, Thank you for reading and giving feedback. Your views are truly valuable. In short, to answer your concerns, in 600 to 800 words, we can’t give overviews of every part of society smoking negatively effects – males, females, children, the elderly. Much has been written about public health issues, by me as well. This, friends, is a blog based on research which shows stages of the smoking epidemic, and it is not I but health scientists who reveal that stage 2 is signified by a rise in female smokers. My point was that a lot of times women start it for the wrong reasons. This I not only observed buy confirmed from many women I talked to before writing this. For men, the reasons are for example stress related to work, unemployment etc. Social trends effect public health, and such trends are important to observe. It is actually very healthy that a debate is triggered by such blogs and articles. The point is that men and women of any age, please quit!Recommend

  • ignorantways


    sympathies with you, your colleagues and readers will respect your opinion but its really very difficult for them to digest your words and to go forward one step after respecting your opinion.

    i dont know a girl/woman/muslimah like you how/why joined and surviving at ET O__ORecommend

  • ignorantways

    sorry mam , well educated pakistanis of elite and upper middle class not ready to even think for quitting smoking.Recommend

  • Occasional Smoker

    i am a smoker and it is not a a method of looking cool. more than half of all smokers are depressed and frustrated. when i face a problem in life which i cannot fix, i resort to smoking, it can numb the brain when one is nervous and make it active when one is tired. it can be a means of rewarding one self and a past time. no one wants to look cool and/or intellectual, you are saying that because it is in your mind and that smokers can come off as arrogant. you have too narrow minded an outlook for a journalist.

    give a smoker a mast and he’ll tell you why he does what he does.Recommend

  • Insaan

    F: “I know for now is that my dependency is too great for me to care about my physical health when I know it’s essential for my emotional sanity”
    How much of your dependency is result of your “imagination?Recommend

  • Amna Mark

    And the growing shisha trend isn’t going to help either :-(
    West has been there and done it and now are banning it … We third world countries are just late copy cats … Trying it out now, discovering it in various forms and when it’ll be too late we will realize it – we are half a century behind from making any change – half of the Arab world and women here (veiled women) smoke – it gives them confidence in the predominantly male world :)Recommend

  • Nobody

    I know Pakistani men like to think they have an invisible shield of armor when it comes to most things, but smoking affects men and women the same, different variety of problems, same potentially fatal end.
    Btw, smoking leads to decreased sperm and fertility problems in men. I wonder if telling the oh-so-manly-men of Pakistan would have any impact….Recommend

  • Nobody

    With respect to your opinion, observations and blog, talking to a few women doesn’t allow one to form an educated and informed opinion. You’d have to take a nation wide study to really understand why women smoke. I can promise, not ALL of them or even MOST will say “because boys do it…” These are women facing all sorts of stresses in life, maybe smoking is just a way for them to kick back. As a woman and a stress smoker who thoroughly enjoys smoking, I can guarantee I didn’t start because other people smoke. I started when school began to kick my behind and needed to de-stress.
    In closing, you’re right, smoking is a bad habit, but most who smoke are fully aware and still do so. People quit when they’re ready. Cheers.Recommend

  • Nobody

    Dear, shisha has not been banned in the west, at least not as far as I’ve seen/read/heard/experienced. They only banned smoking it indoors ANYWHERE, as they did smoking cigarettes. Most places just set up hookah tables outside their establishment now. As far as third world’s copying the hookah trend…. you do know that hookah has been around for centuries on the subcontinent…? The west copied that from the east, and it’s still a fairly popular social activity, particularly among 20 somethings. Not a good habit, but adults can make that decision for themselves. Banning never works, I don’t see why people in Pakistan think banning left and right helps the situation. That’s taking a far too skin-deep approach to every problem.Recommend

  • Indiafirst

    I dont know about pakistan,but at least 60% of girl in my college is chain smoker.They smoke with us …I m not a smoker but my other colleagues do smoke :-)Recommend

  • Khan

    I will smoke around my loved ones if they don’t mind me smoking around them! I’m a grown up and I can make my own decisions. I’m not inconsiderate of people around me… but it’s annoying when nonsmokers belittle you for a habit! This holier than thou attitude isn’t a good quality to have!Recommend

  • Khan

    You’d be surprised how many lower class women smoke! Especially in the KPK.Recommend

  • Vikram

    As a woman and a stress smoker who thoroughly enjoys smoking…….I don’t smoke. I am curious what do you enjoy about smoking. How long your enjoyment lasts? You have made a connection of stress and smoking. Do you think one can have a stress free life.Recommend

  • Vikram

    I don’t think non-smokers are better than smokers. Probably smokers are more sensitive people. A part of your feeling annoyed is because you know smoking is not good for you. Smoking around loved ones means exposing them to second hand smoke.Recommend

  • papoo

    smoking is more dangerous to females than males, medically speaking.Recommend

  • Hp

    Well, Well, Well … If we cling to that itchy idea of ‘Copying every Act of Men’, earnestly warning: Societal Settings would go Rowdy ..
    I was a Full-Time Smoker but now reduced to 2-3 puffs a day .. Smoking is Injurious, [yup] without any discrimination to Men and Women ..