Indonesia is attracting some unwanted attention this World No Tobacco Day for its abysmal failure to regulate smoking and reduce the damage the tobacco industry is inflicting on Indonesian society.
In particular, the tobacco industry’s targeting of women in developing countries like Indonesia is being condemned. I was in a cinema in Jakarta last night and saw the latest ad for a local brand of “slim” cigarettes, especially made to get women and girls hooked on nicotine. It didn’t show a cigarette, just a handsome man inviting his girlfriend to bounce across a field of flowers in two giant bubbles, accompanied by a pop tune with a stupid catch-phrase about how wonderful life can be, or some such claptrap.
Women comprise about 20% of the world’s more than 1 billion smokers. However, the epidemic of tobacco use among women is increasing in some countries. Women are a major target of opportunity for the tobacco industry, which needs to recruit new users to replace the nearly half of current users who will die prematurely from tobacco-related diseases. (WHO)
Indonesia is paradise for Big Tobacco. Not only can they advertise wherever and however they want (some makers have been reported to hand out cigarettes instead of tickets to children attending pop concerts), they also revel in the ignorance of people about the dangers of smoking. Witness the latest smoking baby, a two-year-old with a two-pack-a-day habit courtesy of his father, who thinks his kid is “healthy”. Or The Jakarta Post’s recent feature about “divine cigarettes” – smoking as a cure for cancer.
It’s a recipe for big profits and big payoffs to the government (more than six billion a year in excise duties alone). According to Globe Asia magazine this week, Indonesia’s richest man is Budi Hartono of local cigarette maker Djarum Group, whose wealth soared from 4.1 billion dollars to 4.8 billion dollars in the past year. Djarum was the company that recently sponsored Kelly Clarkson’s concert in Jakarta, until she pulled the plug in the face of international condemnation.
The tobacco industry reportedly employs about 6.1 million people in Indonesia including 2.4 million farmers, who hold prayer meetings and protests every time someone suggests doing something to bring the country’s smoking regulations in line with the rest of the world. Excise taxes are so low that cigarettes are still among the cheapest in the world at just over $1 dollar a packet of 20 (you can buy them individually too, if you like). Even so, the tobacco industry contributes about 10 percent of total government revenue. Health Minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih claims that any proposal to tighten regulations on smoking or tobacco advertising is “very sensitive”.
Anti-smoking activists say the government is simply craven. “The solution is simple: raise the tobacco tax, bring in a total ban on cigarette ads sponsorship and stop being spineless,” Faud Baradja from the Indonesian Smoking Control Foundation told The Jakarta Globe.
The sad fact is that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has not shown much courage in the face of vested interests despite winning to clear mandates from the people to reform government and stamp out corruption. His country is the Wild West of tobacco consumption and the Marlboro Man gallops his way across the archipelago like one of the four horsemen of death.
Another example of the political leadership’s insensitivity to public health concerns is the response to the mud volcano in East Java – a catastrophe most scientists believe was man made yet no one has been prosecuted and the victims are still waiting for their full compensation. Yudhoyono recently visited the location and suggested it be turned into a tourist attraction.
An editorial in The Jakarta Globe said the government’s failure to ban cigarette marketing and ratify the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was “unforgivable“:
Indonesia is one of only three countries that still allow cigarette advertisements and ranks third after China and India as the countries with the highest number of smokers. With what we know about smoking’s dangers, this is unforgivable.
The spike in growth of new smokers in Indonesia cannot be separated from the country’s weak regulations and abysmal law enforcement on tobacco use. The government has shown no political will to take on the powerful tobacco industry despite a growing public outcry.
(Image courtesy of Mykl Roventine via flickr)