WASHINGTON — We’ve come a long way from seeing ourselves as oh-so-sexy holding a slim cigarette — all the way to seeing red. Red, the color of angry outrage, could be just the thing to blot out Big Tobacco’s latest campaign to hook young women on cigarettes by dressing up death in fuchsia and teal.

It isn’t every day that an invitation to an official state event implores its participants to “Come Dressed in Black and White … Leave Seeing Red.” But no slogan came closer to capturing the ferocity of the reaction that Indiana Health Commissioner Judy Monroe was getting from professional women around her state when they heard about R.J. Reynolds’ new Camel No. 9 — a supposedly “light and luscious” cigarette the company has begun marketing aggressively to women.

The spark for Wednesday evening’s anti-tobacco networking session in Indianapolis came at a meeting among Monroe and a handful of anti-tobacco activists. The group discussed Camel No. 9’s marketing, a campaign that includes designing the package as if it were a fashion accessory, in shocking pink and electric blue — and running ads in fashion magazines that are read predominantly by young women and teens. It extends to special ladies’ “spa nights” at nightclubs that cater to the under-30 crowd, where pampering with manicures and massages are part of the push. “Right then and there we said, ‘We’ve got to do something about it,’ ” Monroe recalled in a telephone interview.

The immediate result is a networking session for women where Monroe, Indiana first lady Cheri Daniels and other powerful women in the state are to publicize the dangers of falling for such cheap glitz. “Every time women hear this marketing strategy they are outraged,” says Monroe, a former family physician who says she’s treated patients with severe lung disease from smoking. “They all are ready to be there. I’ve had wonderful e-mails coming in from women clergy, women bishops, business leaders, of course our educators and our young women from the universities.”

More than a generation after the tobacco industry marketed Virginia Slims to newly “liberated” and upwardly mobile women, it just might find itself one-upped. Now some of the same women who were targets of that infamous ad campaign are running businesses, heading universities — and leading state governments. We’ve come all the way from believing the lie that it’s glamorous to smoke, to being furious that cigarettes are advertised in Glamour.

This is real progress. So is the emergence of women such as Donna Colon, a 25-year-old graduate student who went to two Camel No. 9 ladies’ nights at clubs in the Indianapolis area. “They gave you a pampering bag,” Colon said of the evening she spent at The Vogue dance club in the city’s trendy Broad Ripple district. “It was shocking pink and black and it had a bunch of female products in there. They had a little cute pink mirror to put in your purse, an emergency makeup kit, and they had little pink cell phone charms.” Also among the “treats” in the bag were free cigarettes and an invitation to a second Camel No. 9 nightclub party.

Colon, who works at an advertising agency — and volunteers for a youth anti-smoking group — was impressed. “They hired a full-blown salon to come in and set up all these booths. They had everything there — their curling irons, their makeup equipment. They spent a lot of money.” The anti-tobacco side, she says, can’t compete.

Well, not if the competition is held on the tobacco companies’ terms. They believe their money will overwhelm public outrage. They think their under-the-radar marketing gambits (the nightclub evenings, the promotional mailings that turn up after a party guest places her driver’s license through a required scanner, the complimentary pink martini glass) will go unnoticed beyond their youthful targets.

But Monroe and her colleagues have a nine-point plan to push back against Camel No. 9. It asks women to lobby for higher state tobacco taxes, write letters to women’s magazines that run tobacco ads, support federal legislation to give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco and take other action. It asks women to share the anti-tobacco information with nine friends.

If women around the country duplicate this network, we can beat back this latest menace to our health. Then it will be time for a celebratory martini and massage.

CLARIFICATION: My reference in a recent column to Tim Harper of The Toronto Star as the paper’s last U.S. correspondent may have left the impression that the Star intends to close its Washington bureau. It does not.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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