By Madeline McInTyre
Mark takes a drag on his cigarette, the ember flares momentarily between his fingers. ‘Aaaah’ he sighs, the relief is instantaneous as his body eagerly receives its nicotine hit. It is freezing, a sharp wind is sweeping in from Wellington’s harbour, but he and the other teen smokers brave the cold for the long-awaited lunchtime smoke break. Sucking back over 4000 chemicals with every drag, Mark is inhaling products that can be found in floor cleaner (ammonia), car batteries (cadmium), gas chambers (hydrogen cyanide) and rocket fuel (methanol). With every inhalation, Mark’s life expectancy is being cut shorter and shorter. Smoking is killing him.
He isn’t the only one - far from it. Over one billion people smoke on a daily basis and around 80,000 to 100,000 children under the age of 18 start smoking every day. Tobacco use kills 5.4 million people a year and this number is increasing. Sadly, smokers aren’t the only victims of the powerful international tobacco industry known as ‘Big Tobacco’. As Mark slowly burns his life away, another person, perhaps the child who picked the tobacco leaves that are in Mark’s cigarette, is being slowly poisoned by nicotine.
Tobacco is grown throughout the world. The industry claims that some 33 million people are involved in tobacco farming world wide. Originating from the Americas, the majority of tobacco is now grown in China, which produces 40 percent of the global tobacco crop every year. More and more tobacco is being grown and exported from majority world (developing) countries such as India, Indonesia and Malawi.
These countries often have bigger or more pressing problems than opposing or regulating the tobacco industry. In fact, tobacco companies are often actively - or at least tacitly – encouraged to continue to expand. In countries where poverty is rife and where people exist at a subsistence level, some governments welcome tobacco companies because of the potential employment and income they bring. Tobacco giants find it easy to take advantage of the fact that people are desperate for work. They have little difficulty employing cheap labour, and often this is child labour.
As in most areas of agriculture in the majority world child labour is prevalent in the cultivation of tobacco. Children, often working alongside their families, are used in many areas of production such as sowing new seedlings, fertilizing and watering crops, weeding, and plucking tobacco leaves. Often, they are expected to operate heavy machinery within factories and roll hundreds of cigarettes every day.
In Malawi, the world’s fifth largest producer of tobacco, children working in tobacco fields are expected to work from first light until dark. The humid weather means that residual moisture on the tobacco leaves helps nicotine to be absorbed into the skin more quickly, making the threat of nicotine poisoning a daily concern. Otherwise known as green tobacco sickness (GTS), these children are exposed to the equivalent of 50 cigarettes a day, causing nausea, headaches, abdominal pain and breathlessness. No one knows yet what the long term effects will be.
New horizons, new smokers
It seems that as well as capitalising on child labour, the tobacco industry is also targeting young people in the majority world for the consumption of tobacco products. Smoking rates in the minority world (developed) are on a downward slide, largely due to better information about the dangers of smoking, the success of anti-smoking campaigns, and laws aimed at restricting cigarette smoking. So Big Tobacco has turned its attention to easier targets. They have set their sights on the majority world, not only as a cheap and easy place to set up production, but also as a booming new market.
To get life-long customers it helps to target youth. Adolescents are impressionable and want to grow up quickly. Research has shown that when smoking is promoted as a cool ‘adult’ activity, young people will be drawn to it. For example tobacco companies spend millions of dollars every year having their branded tobacco products featured in films (Hollywood, Bollywood and even Wellywood!), on clothing and associated with rock icons such as Alicia Keys, whose tour of south-east Asia was promoted by a tobacco company (much to her disgust when she found out!).
Tobacco companies use subliminal methods to promote smoking to the youth market and cleverly tap into the youth subculture. They sponsor free rock concerts and sporting events. In majority world countries where such events are perhaps rare or rarely available to the poor, such treats make a huge impact on young people.
Despite their website claims that they are ‘responsible’ and ‘don’t want children to smoke’, the programmes tobacco companies have set up to prevent young people smoking have been shown to be weak at best. British American Tobacco, for example, say that they work with retailers as “a front line in the battle against under age smoking” but this is an empty gesture. Retailers make their living from selling. They have no incentive to not sell cigarettes.
So, what is being done?
Five years ago the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Treaty came into force. It is the world’s first and only public health treaty and 168 countries have signed up to it. The treaty obliges governments to protect their people from exposure to tobacco smoke and reduce demand through high prices and taxes, regulating packaging and labeling and also by restricting advertising and sponsorship. This was a huge step in the fight against Big Tobacco. Despite this, World Health Organization director-general Dr. Margaret Chan estimates only slightly more than five percent of the world’s population is protected by national smoke-free laws.
It seems that while Big Tobacco’s influence is retreating in minority world countries such as Aoteoroa New Zealand, with smoking rates being at an all time low, it is on the march across the new frontier of the majority world. The already vulnerable populations are easy targets for the tobacco giants as they dominate the largely unregulated markets and take advantage of the cheap child labour on offer. Whether they are working in the tobacco fields or buying cigarettes in the market place, children in the majority world are at a greater risk of falling victim to the poisonous influence of Big Tobacco.
- Sign up to www.ash.org.nz and help work towards an Aoteoroa New Zealand that is free from the harm caused by tobacco.
- Check out the websites www.notourfuture.co.nz or www.quit.org.nz for facts on smoking and help on quitting.
- Insist that your school is a smokefree environment (www.smokefree.co.nz) and support smokefree events such as the annual Smokefree Rockquest.
- Sign up to international organisations such as ECLT (Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing). www.eclt.org
Majority world – The developing world is increasingly being defined as the majority world. It refers to countries that make up the majority of the world’s population, but have limited access to the world’s resources.
Minority world – The developed world is increasingly defined as the minority world. It refers to the countries that make up the minority of the world’s population but utilize the majority of the world’s resources.
This article was originally published in the Global Focus pages of Tearaway Magazine.