Australia should criminalise citizens promoting tobacco in developing countries

Many people around the world were disturbed when a video emerged of a two-year-old Indonesian smoking baby, but this notorious anecdote alludes to a systemic problem.

Growing rates of smoking are a public health crisis in many developing countries. In Indonesia the problem is severe, with the male smoking rate increasing by around 20 percentage points in 15 years, from 56.2 in 2000 to 76.2 in 2015 – now the highest rate in the world.

The growth in smoking is in part due to concerted advertising from the tobacco giants. Advertisements for tobacco are everywhere. In one town I’ve visited, they were on every second telegraph poll.

The ads target poor people and school children, deliberately setting up near schools. They are spruiking the myth that smoking is associated with a life of freedom and self-creation.

The tobacco companies give venders gifts such as refrigerators and microwaves based on how many ads they put up and how many boxes they sell.

What can we do about this global public health disaster?

One thing Australians can feel genuine pride in was our government’s decision in 2011 to take on the tobacco companies over plain packaging.

Legal threats are the tobacco companies’ tool of choice for bullying developing countries into doing what they want. These countries often do not have the financial or institutional strength to sustain costly legal disputes.

By setting a legal precedent against the tobacco companies, Australia contributed to a global health public good.

But we can do more.

I propose making it a criminal offence for an Australian to promote tobacco in a developing country.

According to 80,000 Hours, a research group on career impact based at Oxford University, the number one most harmful career is marketing or R&D for companies that exploit compulsive behaviours such as smoking. It singled out the promotion of smoking in developing countries as particularly destructive, given low levels of information about smoking’s harm within those countries.

When someone works in such a role, it means their talent and hard work is going towards killing people.

Australians should not be permitted to participate in this human destruction.

What good would the change do? First, it’s morally correct. Second, it will slightly reduce the employment pool for tobacco companies. If an Australian has such a job, they were probably chosen because they were the best person for the job, meaning their replacement will be slightly less effective, thereby saving lives. But third, and most important, it’s a signal to the rest of the world, and other countries may follow – as we saw with plain packaging.

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