Every modern Australian has seen the ongoing anti-tobacco campaign. The health harms of smoking tobacco are well-known: increased risk of cancer, gangrene, heart disease, and damage to the respiratory system are only a few of the more prevalent risks associated with smoking. As we always say, SMART Recovery endorses a harm minimisation approach to any and all addictions: keeping people alive and as healthy and happy as possible is the central tenet of this idea. We often focus, in a harm minimisation sense, on the end users who come to our meetings, and their support networks immediately affected by their actions. However, there remain significant health risks at the other end of the industry, which we often do not speak about.


For example, in Malawi, children as young as five are put to work in the tobacco fields. Handling the raw tobacco leaves without any protective gear means that these children absorb nicotine, the addictive stimulant found in cigarettes, through their skin. Children working in these fields absorb the nicotine equivalent of fifty cigarettes through their skin – daily. Nicotine poisoning is not uncommon among these children, who complain of headaches, breathlessness and severe cramps due to their prolonged exposure to the substance. Tragically, as with exposure to any addictive substance, many of these children find themselves dependent on nicotine (as would anyone else consuming the equivalent of two packs’ worth of cigarettes every day).


Australia, on the other hand, has seen a vastly successful campaign to reduce smoking habits. The success of this campaign has come primarily from those who were discouraged from taking up smoking as a habit, rather than an attempt to dissuade habitual smokers from continuing. The campaign’s focus on education and early intervention has reaped enormous rewards: in 1995, 27.3% of men and 20.3% of women aged over 18 smoked daily, but by 2015 this number had dropped to 16.9% of males and 12.1% of women. By putting people’s health at the centre of the campaign, Australians have reduced the harms associated with cigarette consumption.


Unfortunately, Malawi’s model of exploitation is echoed elsewhere in the global south with other drugs: cocaine, for example, claims lives not only due to overdose, but staggering cartel-related murder rates. Up to 90,000 murders in Mexico between 2007 and 2014 have been linked to the cocaine trade, and that’s a conservative estimate. It’s not as if curious statisticians can call the cartels and get their annual financial reports. As is frequently made clear, the so-called “War on Drugs” has claimed countless lives, not only among those dying of overdose, but those who are caught in the occasionally proverbial, but often literal, crossfire.


Malawi’s children are sadly only one piece of a very modern global jigsaw: in a globalised society, monitoring and regulating industries becomes extremely difficult across state borders. However, consumers can exercise their better judgement and avoid products from companies who use such exploitative business practices.


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