Healthy smoking in Indonesia

Apparently Indonesian scientists have made a breakthrough for the tobacco industry. Thanks to their tireless efforts, smoking is soon to be up there with a balanced diet and regular exercise on the list of things to do if you want to live a long a healthy life.

That’s according to this article in The Jakarta Post, whose author claims to be a direct beneficiary of the health benefits of this new kind of smoking technology.

There is currently important work going on in Indonesia, which indicates a difference between good and bad smoking. A history of tobacco also points to this distinction and it’s important to know and quickly clarify in Indonesia just what this is and then point it out to the rest of the world.

The anti -smoking lobby all around the world is quite right, smoking the normal commercial cigarettes available in the market today is playing havoc with health, medical and government expenses. Something has to be done about it, just ask President Obama while he’s in Indonesia.

The main reason for supporting the pro smoking lobby really has little to do with employment or revenue, that’s a bonus. The real argument is here in Indonesia some quite remarkable Indonesian scientists and doctors have discovered that cigarette smoking can, with specially treated cigarettes, significantly assist people’s health and has the potential to cut health costs around the globe.

This work has been going on quietly and unaided for some years and the reason I write today is because I am one of many that have benefited from this remarkable Indonesian discovery.

The author, who I’m told is an Australian mining executive and long-term resident of Indonesia, claims to represent something called the Victor Chang Foundation. The 2005-06 report of the Australian Council for International Development lists it as a new signatory to the council’s code of conduct. It says the group’s aim is to “promote training and the acquisition of expertise in the management of cardiac disease in Asia, with a special emphasis in supporting developing areas”. The following year’s report, however, notes that the foundation had resigned as a signatory, meaning it is no longer a member of the council and is ineligible for Australian government aid.

The Jakarta Post article doesn’t shed any light on this. The author doesn’t name the scientists who are developing so-called healthy cigarettes or provide any evidence to back up his claim, except for his own belief from personal experience (the sort of evidence commonly used by American TV evangelists).

Victor Chang was a great Australian pioneer of heart surgery who was tragically killed by Malaysian criminals in a botched extortion attempt in Sydney in 1991. The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute was set up in his honour with the backing of some of the best and brightest of Australian politics and industry. The VCCRI told me it has no knowledge of the foundation cited in the newspaper article and rejects  its claims for the supposed health benefits of smoking.

Indonesians are particularly vulnerable to tobacco industry propaganda because their government has made no serious effort to protect or inform them. With millions of enthusiastic smokers (around 60 percent of men smoke), poor education, little or no regulation or tax, it’s little wonder the tobacco industry sees the archipelago of some 240 million people as a veritable shangri-la, a gold mine to offset falling revenues in the developed world.

Smoking is everywhere in Indonesia, especially among children and teenagers – the industry’s target market. The Marlboro Man rides high on billboards, and movie-goers are treated to extended, ultra-slick advertisements for the Cancerous Cowboy. Indonesia’s two richest men, according to Forbes magazine last year, were the Sampoerna brothers, who amassed billions flogging highly toxic kretek or clove cigarettes (the most popular in Indonesia) before selling their empire to Philip Morris, which is now raking in the profits. To protect the industry’s 600,000 domestic jobs from the sales implications of greater health awareness, the government doesn’t enforce a ban on smoking in bars etc and has promised not to increase excises on cigarettes until some time this year. So a packet of Marlboros (Philip Morris’s biggest-selling non-kretek brand) costs around US$1.20. Even so, in a country where a third of the population lives below the poverty line and the government spends less than three percent on health, nicotine addiction is the last thing poor families need.

The absence of effective government might be why senior Islamic clerics recently declared smoking haram or forbidden. They took the matter into their own hands, and stirred up quite a controversy. It’s hard not to see the article in The Jakarta Post as push-back by the tobacco industry, which knows very well that its greatest protection from tighter regulation is the element of doubt it can sow in the marketplace about the health effects of smoking.

And what of those effects, again? This is what Philip Morris executive David Davies told Bloomberg in 2005: “We have been very clear in every country in which we do business that there’s no such thing as a safe cigarette. A low-tar cigarette is no safer than any other cigarette and consumers should simply be guided by an understanding that there is no safe cigarette.”

If there is such a cigarette, as a reformed smoker, I’d love to know!

Victor Chang was voted Australian of the Century in 1999.


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