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Cigarette ads are dressed to kill.

Mock cigarette packs and the logos and slogans are pasted all over small shops in Vietnam, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and Vietnam's amended Trade Law 2005 ban all forms of advertising and promotion of tobacco products.

Technically, these ads are just "displays" not advertisements.

And the displays now have a new audience.

With the tobacco industry aggressively targeting women, tobacco advertising now implies that smoking as sign of independence, seduction and attractiveness.

"It's really attractive to see Marylin Monroe smoking," said 26-year-old Nguyen Thi Mai Phuong, referring to a display of Marylin Monroe smoking at a café in District 1. "I love the way she is and want to be like that."

Phuong, an employee of Ho Chi Minh City's Sala Film Entertainment Company, said smoking adds pleasure to her life.

"I just really don't care about what people think about a woman smoking. I have been smoking since I was 14 and I like it. It is the way I am," Phuong told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"[Smoking] makes me confident and I trust that my friends, either men or women, would be very proud to hang out with a dynamic girl who smokes like me."

But 25-year-old Nguyen Quang Huy, who has just graduated from the HCMC's Pham Ngoc Thach University of Medicine, said he could not stand the sight of a woman smoking.

"Smoking can to some extent indicate that a woman has a strong character. But the bottom line is that it also illustrates her irresponsible attitude to her health," said Huy, who doesn't smoke.

"I would never ever accept a girlfriend who smokes."

Dr. Dinh Phuong Duy, chairman of the HCMC Psychology and Education Science Society, acknowledged that many Vietnamese women, particularly young girls, are hopping on the smoking bandwagon.

"Smoking is a way modern girls show off or just simply get away with the growing work pressure," Duy told Thanh Nien Weekly.

The new femmes fatales

Smoking caused around 40,000 deaths in Vietnam in 2007, the WHO statistics show. This figure could surge to 70,000 by the end of 2030 if drastic measures are not taken, the United Nations agency warns.

Smoking-related deaths rates are much higher than traffic deaths in motorcycle-riding Vietnam. In 2007, traffic accidents claimed about 13,000 deaths, according to the WHO figures, leading experts to label smoking the "hidden epidemic."

Compared to men, there are few female smokers in Vietnam. The WHO reports that currently around 50 percent of adult men are active smokers and only two percent of adult women smoke. For years, women in Vietnam have been considered immoral or promiscuous if they smoke.

But this disparity could change as tobacco companies have shifted their business strategies.

"The tobacco industry is targeting women because the smoking among men has reached a very high level in many countries and in some countries it has been slowly decreasing," said Dr. Nguyen Tuan Lam of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative.

"Therefore, to maintain and widen their market the tobacco industry is aggressively targeting women, especially in developing countries," Lam said.

"It is quite understandable that the companies have shifted their tactics. They are always sensitive to their potential customers," psychologist Duy said.

To Phuong, a singer who frequently performs at bars and clubs in HCMC, said she had seen many of her friends take up smoking.

"When the people around you smoke, particularly your female peers, you just cannot resist that temptation," said To Phuong, who said she smoked 15 cigarettes per day on average.

Mai Phuong, who was mentioned earlier in the story, concurred that her surroundings and peers played a key role in her continued smoking.

"80 percent of my [female] colleagues smoke. My male friends admire me when they see I smoke."

Trick of the trade

Jorge Alday, a spokesperson for the New York-based World Lung Foundation, pointed his finger at the huge budget tobacco companies have dished out to make cigarette smoking look attractive and appealing to their particular target markets.

"They try to promote their products so that young women will think smoking can make them look more modern and successful," Alday said.

Lam of the Tobacco Free Initiative said tobacco companies have also cashed in on legal loopholes in Vietnam, using clever "display methods" to in fact advertise their products.

"[Tobacco] companies often employ young girls to dress in a particular color or style associated with a certain cigarette brand, going around from café to café to sell cigarettes. In fact the main purpose is to advertise their products in those places where the youths often come for refreshment," Lam said.

Lam and Alday agreed that companies have been able to do so because comprehensive tobacco control measures are not yet in place.

Despite positive efforts made by the Vietnamese government to curb smoking, its implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has much room for improvement.

"As a chain smoker, it would be tough for me quit smoking as I can buy the cheap cigarettes everywhere. I can also smoke everywhere," To Phuong said.

A government decree effective January 1 this year prohibits smoking at indoor public places but "there is little or almost no enforcement so far," Lam said.

The WHO has also advocated that Vietnam increase its tobacco taxes, saying it would be a win-win policy.

Currently, cigarettes are taxed at 32 percent. With a tax increase of 20 percent, retail prices would increase by about 10 percent and government tax revenues will go up by VND1.9 trillion (US$101.7 million), the WHO estimates.

Vietnam introduced five different warnings in 2008 that are displayed on 30 percent of the pack the international standard but left out graphic warnings such as pictures of rotten lungs or hearts.

So far, 38 countries worldwide have implemented pictorial health warnings, and in ASEAN the Philippines becomes the fifth country to implement pictorial health warnings from August this year, the WHO said.

"˜Not a big deal'

The WHO said in a statement to mark the World No Tobacco Day on May 31 that smoking could cause grave and permanent consequences on women and their children like risk of miscarriage, premature delivery, low weight newborn baby, or long-term impacts to children's health and behaviors.

While To Phuong appeared to be concerned about the warnings, Mai Phuong said she did not care about it at all.

Planning to have a baby in the next year or so, To Phuong said she would quit smoking step by step.

But Mai Phuong said no matter what happens, smoking will remain a daily routine of her life.

"Even when I am pregnant and going to deliver a baby, smoking several packs of cigarettes will not be a big deal."

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