Australia is one of the world leaders in the war against tobacco advertising. The idea has been that to help people quit smoking, the tobacco advertising industry must have its wings clipped. It has been illegal to advertise tobacco products on the radio and television since 1976 and in 1990 it became illegal to promote tobacco in Australian magazines and newspapers. The Tobacco Advertising Prohibition of 1992 now bans most forms of tobacco advertising, and plain packaging cigarettes will likely be the next step in the Australian war on Big Tobacco.
Australia is indeed a bellwether of global anti-tobacco initiatives, but do these efforts really help its populace quit smoking? According to the New South Wales Cancer Council, Australians have quit smoking in dramatic numbers, particularly Australian men. In 1945, approximately 72% of Australian men were regular smokers and 26% of Australian women smoked. Contrast these numbers with recent Australian statistics: In 2007, 18.6% of Australian men were regular smokers and 14.5% of women were regular smokers. On the surface, and when the entire populace is taken into account, it looks as though clamping down on the tobacco industry’s ability to advertise freely has massive amounts of people to quit smoking, and this is true. But a deeper look at the statistics reveals a troubling trend: smoking rates in Australia are highest amongst both the youth and aboriginals. The highest smoking rates among non-indigenous Australians are men aged 18-24 (34%) and women aged 25-34 (27%). Among the indigenous population, smoking rates are even higher, hovering steadily around 50%. This may be due to their disenfranchisement, but they are subjected to the same lack of tobacco advertising as the non-indigenous population, so something else is at play here because both young non-indigenous and indigenous Australians have not quit smoking—they have continued to inhale.
What do these disturbing trends among Australian youth say about Australia’s strict curbing of tobacco advertising? If the Australian youth, a generation that has grown up under these strict regulations, are the primary smokers in Australia, then something must be amiss. The problem likely lies in the fact that too much emphasis is being placed on Big Tobacco and not enough is placed on the personal responsibility each person has in shaping their own tobacco use habits. It is very easy to point the finger as long as we don’t have to point the finger at ourselves and today’s youth are accustomed to laying the blame for their behavior on external influences. But external influences do not force the habit of smoking—they merely influence. If a person wants to quit smoking, they must make it a personal priority. It is an excellent thing that Australia places so much emphasis on taking the legs out from underneath tobacco advertising, but there needs to be more emphasis placed on the role that personal responsibility has in helping people quit smoking. A smoking commercial might show us cigarettes, but we are the ones who hold the lighters.
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