Category Archives: Science

Tobacco ad of the day: miracle electro-smokes!

On world No Tobacco Day, your featured cigarette ad from times past and, in Indonesia, present:

I’m not sure if you can read the newspaper “article”. It says:

Scientific miracles never cease!… Now see what modern electronics has done to increase your cigarette enjoyment! With electronic accuracy, Accu Ray checks and controls the making of your Chesterfield. For the first time you get a perfect [even smoke] from end-to-end. You’ll marvel at the extra flavour that comes through. Yet because this measurably better cigarette smokes more slowly – you enjoy a cool mildness never possible before. From first puff to last, Chesterfield gives you a smoke measurably smoother… cooler… best for you! In the whole wide world, no cigarette satisfies like a Chesterfield!

Looks like they also boost eyebrow growth (obviously tastes have changes in that department over the years … ).

Those of us from developed countries might laugh and recognise this as the old game Big Tobacco played on us for years – dressing up toxic cigarettes in pseudo-science and technology and selling them as healthy, life-enhancing products.

In developing countries like Indonesia – the new front line for international efforts to reduce death and disease from smoking – it’s not funny. Cigarette advertising is ubiquitous and The Jakarta Post, the country’s oldest English-language broadsheet newspaper, has repeatedly published uncritical articles in its editorial pages about how local scientists are using advances in nantotechnology to make “divine cigarettes” that are not only healthy, they can treat cancer. Even Chesterfield didn’t go that far.

(For more old tobacco ads, see Stanford School of Medicine’s great gallery)

No Tobacco Day in Indonesia? Try a ‘health cigarette’

As the world marks No Tobacco Day, Indonesia is again in the spotlight and The Jakarta Post has again covered itself in infamy. On the eve of today’s event, the English-language daily published another installment in its bizarre campaign to promote “healthy cigarettes”. Using pseudo-scientific language, the author of an “opinion” piece claims that cancer patients are being successfully treated with scientifically altered cigarettes that vacuum up all harmful “free radicals” linked mercury.

If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny:

… apparently, a biochemist from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) has found a way to do just that — neutralise tobacco through a nanobiological process. i.e. a process characterised by the interplay between physics, materials science, synthetic organic chemistry, engineering and biology. The researcher has successfully treated a number of terminal lung cancer patients through a detoxification method that includes smoking the “healthy cigarettes” of her invention.

The unnamed scientist sounds suspiciously like Dr. Greta Zahar, of “Divine Cigarettes” fame. But Alita Damar, the writer of the opinion piece, seems to follow the template set by Australian contributor Murray Clapham last year and doesn’t name the mastermind behind this historic medical breakthrough. Best to keep all those desperate cancer sufferers guessing! She continues:

Indeed, the nanostructure molecular blocks of these health cigarettes remove the electrons of the free radical gases contained in tobacco smoke, in particular those promoted by mercury, thereby neutralising the ill-effects of smoking. Unlike regular cigarettes, this cigarette smoke is “odorless”.

So all the harmful effects of smoking, from impotence to stroke and heart disease and emphysema, not to mention cancer, are nullified by this new treatment. And what of the doubters? They’re dismissed out of hand:

Naturally, the controversial method has raised controversy [spellbinding wordplay here] in the wake of the anti-tobacco campaign here and around the world. Speculation has also been rife that she might work for the tobacco industry. It’s not true, of course. Years ago most patients would only survive in the next few months due to their poor prognostics, but many of whom are still alive.

And what, dare we ask, is the evidence that smoking such cigarettes cures or halts the spread of cancer? None. Unless you factor in the power of the placebo. In the absence of any evidence, we must conclude that the free radical, nano-engineering blah blah being touted here is just another form of “alternative medicine” which desperately ill people will try as a last resort. And as The Economist noted last week, there is very little evidence that alternative medicines work beyond the placebo effect, which may be considerable.

Damar claims that the mysterious researchers are part of the “complexity science” movement, and she notes that they have “presented” their findings at international meetings:

As controversial as it may seem, the detoxification process is based on meta-engineering, for example, the development of new knowledge…

This science, which includes the less popular quantum physics, deals with cells and interaction between cells. It thereby enables a better understanding on how the whole body system functions, thus leading to the achievement of “holistic health”. Hence, we are speaking of a science that potentially brings about breakthroughs in medical science which is generally based on reductionism, or a science that may well “revolutionise” medicine.

The detoxification method has been presented in a number of international forums attended by scientists working on Theoretical Physics and Nano or Computer Science, such as the recent ICEME (International Conference on Engineering and Meta-Engineering) in Florida, the US.

I looked up the proceedings of this conference (which one anonymous blogger described as “junk” ) and found the paper to which Damar appears to be referring. It’s by Sutiman B. Sumitro, identified as representing the Department of Biology and “Laboratory of Molecular Biology” at Brawijaya University in West Java.

The paper is titled “Study on Biradical Based Complex Structure: A PossibleWay to Find out Natural Nanoparticles from the Human Body”. A paper with the same name by Sutiman Sumitro  also appears on the fascinating website of something called the Indonesia Nanobiology Institute.  Take the time to read the 4-page paper and decide for yourself if it’s credible. I’m not a scientist so I can only guess.

Sumitro is a long-standing associate of Zahar, that “strange granny” I’ve mentioned before. They seem to be the driving forces of the “nanobiology institute” and co-author articles posted there. Check out the paper titled “Overcoming Cigarette for Health without altering the Flavor (Brief illustration of scientific background and evidences)”. Fascinating. It says Zahar is from the “Free Radicals Institute” of Malang. So many institutes I just can’t keep up. Here’s the abstract, or as the authors put it, the “Basic Concept and Philosophy”:

This is about technology to eliminate free-radicals and to transform particulates contained in the smoke having characteristic to develop order. The idea is based on the assumption that in the biological system, life is an ordered system with internal driven activities. We consider a complexity concepts cover self-organization and edge-of-chaos phenomena in the living systems. As may we know that in the basic process of life (called metabolism), there is ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair and perpetuate itself. Thermodynamically, the ordered structure of the living system is maintained by continually exert entropy to the outside of the system.

Pretty clear, yeah? They even include a diagram to illustrate “complexity in living system”:

So, we can rest assured the Nobel committee is on its way to Bandung or Malang (or wherever) to bestow its honours on Dr. Zahar (who has previously stated she has no interest in having her work reviewed by “Western” scientists), her colleague  Sutiman Sumitro and their groundbreaking team. When are all those silly Western evidence-freaks going to come to their senses?

Sadly, The Jakarta Post isn’t the only outlet for those willing to peddle this stuff. Take a look at this blog for more.

For a dose of reality, check out this story in the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday, with the depressing stats on smoking in Indonesia.

Or check the National Cancer Institute’s website and read what it has to say about free radicals (such as oxygen) and antioxidants (such as vitamin C). It says that while serious research is ongoing, recent “large-scale, randomised clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions” about whether antioxidants slow or prevent the development of cancer. As for actually reversing that damage, there seems to be no evidence at all.

There is also serious research being done into the use of nanoparticles to fight cancer. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, have sent gold nanoparticles into the nuclei of cancer cells and killed them (NB: sent particles into cancer cells, not used particles to hoover up free radicals). Their research has been cited as a communication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

I’d love to know who is behind these opinion pieces and features in The Jakarta Post, coming as they do on the eve of No Tobacco Day and as the government tries to improve its appalling record on smoking regulations. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the tobacco industry’s advertising dollars, would it?

Tobacco ad of the day: smoking as medicine!

Today’s darkly amusing tobacco ad goes out to none other than our favourite “doctor” Greta Zahar, she of “divine cigarette” fame. The esteemed Indonesian “healer” has thoroughly demolished my criticism of her methods, so all I can do is refer you to her website and let you inhale her in her own inimitable words.

Here’s a little sample:

The cigarette advertisement (health warnings) on cigarette boxes is part of the “Nicotine War” program. It is indeed strange that our fathers who were heavy smokers who had many children were obviously not impotent, and we have not heard anybody having lung cancer in their villages, while those who suffer lung cancer are those who have money and amalgam fillings in their teeth.

That’s actually one of the more coherent passages in what is a truly mystifying website. As Craig Brown wrote of the challenge for the parodist who attempts to mock Germaine Greer, Zahar “leaves no room for improvement: it’s perfect as it is”.

PS: The Sydney Morning Herald’s Tom Allard wrote a nice piece about Indonesia’s tobacco habit earlier this month, mentioning Zahar’s invention.

NASA’s ‘ghost nebula’ freaks me out

NASA posted this image of something called the “ghost nebula” on its website for Halloween. Don’t know about you but it kinda freaks me out. I mean, how spooky is that face? And it’s huge! I shouldn’t have watched Poltergeist on the weekend…

Indonesian disconnect – it works both ways

SBY - pusillanimous?

The credibility gap between the image Indonesia promotes of itself abroad and the realities at home seems to yawn wider every day.

Check out President Yudhoyono’s condemnation of the crazy US pastor’s threats to burn the Koran. You’d think he was Nelson Mandela by the tone he used to demand action from President Obama and admonish those intolerant Americans on behalf of the pluralistic utopia he leads.

Given the sad recent incidents of religious violence by Muslim extremists against Christians, foreigners and members of the Ahmadiya Islamic sect, it was worse than hypocritical.

The hypocrisy has not been lost on thinking Indonesians. Here’s local journalist Desi Anwar in The Jakarta Globe:

The attack on a Christian pastor (outside Jakarta) on Sunday was a natural consequence of a festering problem that the state has not been willing to resolve — the protection of minorities and the practice of pluralism as the country’s basic principle…

Obama is sticking his neck out to protect Muslims in America. Where is Yudhoyono’s effort to protect Christians in Indonesia? His pusillanimity has only escalated the problem.

The government needs to understand that when it comes to matters of religion and minority rights, even in democracies, it should not be left for the majority’s overriding sentiment to decide, but for the state to protect.

For it is in a country’s ability to protect its minorities that the integrity and legitimacy of the government lies.

In Muslim-majority Indonesia, the freedom of religion and other rights guaranteed under the constitution only extend, in practical effect, to Muslims. And even then they extend only to Muslims from the curious Sunni tradition Indonesians have invented for themselves (which most Arab Sunnis, in turn, would regard as deviant).

But forget religion – after all, who is not a hypocrite who claims to be able to cast religious stones in the way Yudhoyono did last week?

Greenwashing is another case in point. Yudhoyono is fond of making sweeping pledges about the environment, especially when he’s abroad seeking millions of dollars in grants for conservation projects. Then he becomes mysteriously mute as soon as he returns home and activists point out the rampant illegal logging and alleged corruption that is happening in Indonesia’s forestry sector under his watch.

To be fair, it’s been happening since the 1980s under Suharto, but Yudhoyono deserves particular criticism because he has won two elections on the back of promises to get serious about fighting corruption.

The disconnect between the real Indonesia and the one presented on the world stage isn’t the work of Yudhoyono alone. He gets a lot of help from Western market analysts and investment gurus who are more than happy to ignore the country’s myriad problems and talk it up as an an “investment Shangri-La”.

UNCAC Campaign Logo

One Western analyst, in an article on September 1 singing the praises of Indonesia as a destination for foreign investment, claimed that “the (Indonesian) government has apparently been effective in finally tackling corruption and nepotism and the economy is growing at a strong pace”.

Well, he’s right about the economic growth but the idea that this government has brought corruption under control is ludicrous, to put it mildly. Good luck to any investor who belives that – they’ll need it.

The IMF last week warned that investors could bail out of Indonesia just as quickly as they jumped in, citing improvements to transparency and the rule of law as vital to long-term confidence.

A new report from the Harvard Kennedy School concludes that little has changed since the cleptocracy of the Suharto decades:

The reformasi [post-Suharto] era inherited a deeply entrenched legacy of economic oligarchy and “collusive democracy” from the Guided Democracy and New Order periods. Economic oligarchy and political collusion are maintained through high barriers to entry in a wide range of industries, a dysfunctional legal system, patrimonial politics, disempowered citizens and an attenuated sense of national citizenship. Oligarchy and collusive democracy have left Indonesia ill equipped to respond to the challenge of globalization. Like a marathoner carrying a twenty kilogram pack, Indonesia can see the competition pulling away but is powerless to pick up the pace. The country’s institutions are designed to protect wealth and privileges, not to promote competition…

The state must be transformed from a vehicle that provides favors and facilities to the rich and powerful into a “rule of law” state that works to realize the rights of all citizens regardless of income, region, gender, ethnicity or religion.

In other words, don’t believe the hype about Indonesia’s “golden era” of democratic reform and economic growth.

Lately it seems the “Buy Indonesia” campaign has some willing and powerful cheerleaders in the US State Department. It’s no doubt part of Obama’s increasingly ham-fisted efforts to reach out to the Muslim world and step up Washington’s engagement with East Asia in the face of the challenge to US primacy from China.

The latest bit of Indonesia-related propaganda on the department’s website is about science cooperation. Yep, you guessed it, we’re supposed to believe that Indonesia is a leader in scientific research and medicine.

This is the country of “Blue Energy“, lest we forget.

F. Gray Handley, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is quoted as saying he’s “very excited” about the prospect of collaboration with Indonesia in research into infection diseases. Forget the fact that the previous such effort was shut down by Indonesia amid crazy allegations of espionage and biological weapons programmes. No, we won’t even mention that.

F. Gray Handley

Handley adds: “Indonesia has outstanding, well-trained physicians and nurses, outstanding institutions in the public and private sector and very well-developed medical schools.”

This is simply preposterous. Indonesia’s health care is notoriously bad – so bad that Indonesians and foreigners who can afford it fly to Singapore, Australia or the United States for treatment. Every Indonesian is appalled by the sub-standard treatment they have to endure in their atrocious hospitals. Poor mothers have to SELL THEIR BABIES to pay the delivery costs.

Time correspondent Jason Tedjasukmana wrote earier this year of his experiences with Indonesia’s “outstanding” physicians.:

I never thought I would let the grim stories I’d heard about Indonesia’s health care system turn me into one of those expats who left the country at the slightest hint of a sore throat. I may have been skeptical of undergoing any major procedure in the country where I’ve been living since 1994, but I was pretty confident local doctors could handle a run-of-the-mill condition like vernal conjunctivitis. I was wrong.

He goes on to describe how, after being repeatedly misdiagnosed by Indonesian doctors, he nearly went blind in his right eye from a common and easily treated form of conjuctivitis. Eventually his eye was saved by a doctor in the United States. Tedjasukmana quotes Dr. Kartono Mohammad, former head of the Indonesian Doctors’ Association, as saying: “We have no health system”.

This is the situation in the third-fastest growing economy in G20 last year.

And despite the billions of dollars in foreign aid and investment flowing into Indonesia, it doesn’t look like improving any time soon, judging by the standards of education. None of Indonesia’s 1,500 universities made it onto the 2010 QS World University Rankings of the top 200 higher education institutions in the world for overall performance, announced this month.

Far from sharing Handley’s banal optimism, The Jakarta Globe noted in an editorial about the failure of the country’s education system: “Indonesia is desperately in need of a more qualified and creative work force, as well as professionals who can lead large organizations”.

Again, the Harvard Kennedy School:

An Indonesian child is now nearly three times as likely to die before his or her fifth birthday as a Vietnamese child. Progress in providing access to clean water and sanitation has been slow. Nearly one third of children suffer from moderate to severe stunting, and nearly one fifth are underweight. Mothers in Indonesia are more than three times more likely to die in childbirth than Vietnamese mothers. These basic
indicators of well-being are the most direct measure of government effectiveness. Reducing child and maternal death requires the creation and maintenance of basic public health care systems that are capable of delivering quality services to even the poorest households. Successive reformasi governments have failed to achieve this modest objective.

The US government (and others like it, such as Australia’s) would do a lot more for its image in this part of the world if it openly and honestly confronted the corruption and abuse of power that leads to such breakdowns in public services, rather than patting Indonesians on the head and patronising them with false praise.

(Images courtesy of Indonesian and US govts, and UN)

More doubts about REDD in Indonesia

At last someone has quantified what percentage of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation on land not covered by areas earmarked for UN-backed (and Western taxpayer funded) conservation. And it ain’t pretty.

Bukit Tiga Puluh, Sumatra

The World Agroforestry Centre reckons as much as a third of the country’s emissions – which are the third biggest in the world after China and the United States – come from areas not officially designated forest.

This means areas that would not be preserved under a scheme known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), which could be a key plank of a future world climate deal. Under REDD, taxpayers in industrial countries pay emerging countries to preserve their forests and thereby cut carbon emissions from deforestation, which are said to account for about 80 percent of those produced by forest-slashing Indonesia.

In a perfect world the scheme sounds like a brilliant way to make quick cuts to climate-warming emissions while preserving the biodiversity contained in forests. The problem is that it’s not a perfect world, and countries which are as thoroughly corrupt as Indonesia simply cannot be trusted to implement the scheme in a way that guarantees any real reductions in emissions.

The fact that Indonesia’s forestry sector is trying to get palm oil plantations designated as “forests” that foreign taxpayers would pay to “preserve” is a pretty good indication of how far Indonesia needs to go to convince critics that it is sincere about making REDD work and not just seeing another chance to line its pockets with foreign aid.

The agroforestry centre says:

Although Indonesia has shown leadership in committing to voluntarily reduce emissions by 26 per cent, the large quantity of carbon emissions from outside forest areas may cancel out any net emissions reductions that are achieved.

In that case, all those billions of dollars pledged for REDD schemes in Indonesia by countries like Norway and Australia would be a total waste of resources, and the carbon offsets they were intended to create would be a farce. The planet would keep on cooking in greenhouse gases just the same.

The centre says 0.6 gigatonnes of carbon are emitted each year in “areas that are not officially considered forests in Indonesia”, so they are “not accounted for” under the country’s current REDD policy. That’s convenient for Indonesia’s palm oil producers, who have strongly resisted REDD and routinely deny persistent allegations that they engage in illegal and unsustainable practices of land clearing.

(Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)

Divine tobacco doctor responds, but what is she talking about?

My apologies must go to the Indonesian “scientist” Greta Zahar for failing to see her lengthy reply to my posts about her purported cancer treatment. Having read her website quite thoroughly I wasn’t inclined to revisit it, hence I missed her response.

Just to update, the good “doctor” thinks she can cure cancer through “traditional” oils and massage combined with the smoke of “divine cigarettes” fitted with nano-particles that she claims remove free radicals etc etc. She actually encourages smokers, non-smokers and cancer sufferers to smoke cigarettes. Cancer, she claims, is caused by amalgams in dental fillings, not smoking.

If it sounds weird it’s because it is. In the interests of fairness perhaps I should give some space here for her explanation. For expediency’s sake I’ll just quote two illuminating excerpts from her response, so you can make up your own mind. The rest of it is, frankly, beyond my ken.

Anti-smokers are asked to put aside their skepticism and try it out, first maybe by smoking the plants around them seeing the change of color etc.. The invention of this divine cigarette opens up a new occupation in agriculture by smoking the land with divine tobacco; even cows who are given the divine smoke improve the quality and quantity of their milk. Our current program, is to smoke damaged land which is planned for replanting, smoking seeds and fish in the ponds with Divine tobacco. Astonishingly those who work smoking the cigarette feel energized and happy.

The employment program will accelerate the cleansing of the Indonesian environment and change the nation to be wealthy in spirit and body as the traditional smoking of old times.

The cigarette advertisement on cigarette boxes is part of the “Nicotine War” program. It is indeed strange that our fathers who were heavy smokers who had many children were obviously not impotent, and we have not heard anybody having lung cancer in their villages, while those who suffer lung cancer are those who have money and amalgam fillings in their teeth.

Not happy just with curing cancer and autism (yes, she reckons her cigarettes treat that as well), Zahar claims her “method” also improves cow milk and restores degraded land. Wow!

As to why she hasn’t published her findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and claimed the Nobel Prize which is certainly hers, she says:

It has been almost 13 years, doing the research of balur Divine with my own money, without the help of any foundation, but  only with faith in the Almighty , that the TRUTH would one day be revealed and accepted.

That’s an old take on the scientific method – trust in God. In fact, it’s what people did before they had a scientific method.

None of this would have warranted any comment if it hadn’t been for the intervention of the likes of Australian businessman Murray Clapham and the The Jakarta Post. Clapham trumpeted the curative qualities of Zahar’s techniques in an op-ed piece in the English-language daily, using an association with the Victor Chang Foundation (named after the late pioneering heart surgeon) to boost his questionable credentials. The Post then followed this up with a lengthy and positive feature entitled “Divine cigarettes used to treat cancer”.

The Australia-based Victor Chang Foundation, embarrassed by the stir Clapham had caused, quickly denied it endorsed his comments in any way. But others came to his defence, namely David Sangster, a retired chemist who is listed as an Honorary Research Associate in chemistry at the University of Sydney. (Zahar calls Sangster a “supervisor who I respect and love very much, who, all this time listens and mentors me”.)

Without a shred of scientific evidence to back it up, this kind of coverage of smoking and cancer issues in The Jakarta Post strikes me as more than just irresponsible. Indonesia, after all, is a country where smoking-related illnesses kill an estimated 400,000 people every year, and where rates of addiction, especially among the young, are on the rise. The industry remains almost completely unregulated by international standards, and packs of 20 cigarettes retail for around $1. 

There are no health benefits from smoking tobacco in any form.