For many Indonesians, the dangers of smoking may sound like something of a myth. The fine-print warning on the side of a cigarette pack is drowned out by positive media messages about lighting up — smoking is hip, youthful, masculine (or feminine) and best of all, it’s your choice.
It’s no wonder an estimated 165 million people in Indonesia, or 66 percent of the population, follow the slogans of big companies like HM Sampoerna and simply “Go Ahead.”
But beneath the clean image promoted by the tobacco companies, Indonesia faces a very real public health crisis. According to official estimates, at least 400,000 Indonesians die each year from smoking-related illnesses.
Battling the interests of global companies, nationalist industry groups and slow regulation reform, a small group of antismoking activists in Indonesia are starting to make their voices heard. But compared to other countries, the battle against smoking is just beginning. Officials have yet to be convinced that public health is a greater priority than industry.
In global terms, the government’s promises this week to introduce laws requiring cigarette packaging to carry graphic health warnings and to ban the sale of cigarettes to children under 18 years of age are long overdue.
Since 2003, 168 countries have signed the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, including Afghanistan, Rwanda and Nigeria. Participants have agreed to introduce price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco, as well as non-price measures such as regulating tobacco products and their packaging, and educating the public about their dangers.
But Indonesia has yet to come on board, and remains on the global fringe when it comes to regulating tobacco use, as proposed regulations continue to be stalled in the legislature. Some groups even argue that smoking is central to Indonesia’s national identity.
In fact, a pro-smoking argument hit bookshelves this month.
“Killing Indonesia: The Global Conspiracy to Destroy Clove Cigarettes,” was compiled by writer Miranda Harlan, law school graduate Abhisam DM and independent researcher Hasriadi Ary. The book, endorsed by celebrities, professors and journalists, claims that antismoking campaigns are a foreign plot to kill Indonesia’s clove industry, a longtime source of income and national pride.
The book follows the history of kretek (clove) cigarettes from the 17th century rule of Sultan Agung of Mataram through various periods of occupation under Dutch and Japanese rule. It concludes that the kretek industry is a badge of Indonesian independence, and that protecting the industry should be a national commitment.
The authors even question the serious health implications of smoking. “Would you look down on sugar because it can cause diabetes?” the book asks. “And would you look down on coconut oil because, as the market authorities and the greedy say, it could raise your cholesterol or put your heart in danger?”
The same chapter goes on to compare the struggle to protect Indonesia’s kretek industry to Mahatma Gandhi’s 1930 movement to secure the Indian people’s right to make salt, disobeying salt laws during the British Raj.
Critics like investigative journalist Mardiyah Chamim and several colleagues released a book in Jakarta last week advocating the other side of the argument.
Strongly titled “A Giant Pack of Lies,” the book aims to “reveal the power of Indonesia’s cigarette industry” by taking an objective look at the facts.
Mardiyah, a journalist for the respected news magazine Tempo, simply laughed when asked about the so-called conspiracy to destroy the kretek industry.
“I think the bad things about smoking surely outweigh any of the good excuses they can come up with,” she said.
Mardiyah begins her own book with a chapter titled “I Am Not Anti-Smoking” to bolster her objective stance on the issue.
“It’s true, I am not anti-smoking,” she writes. “But I hold a strong opinion regarding the behavior of the tobacco industry.”
The author goes on to compare Indonesia’s current attitude toward smoking to that of the United States in the 1930s, arguing that the country is decades behind in raising public awareness of the dangers of tobacco use and in forcing the industry to take responsibility for its harmful impact on public health.
Other researchers offer their own findings, including a chapter by East Java academic Felix Lamuri, who debunks what he calls the “Seven Myths of Tobacco Control.” These include the assertion that tobacco is a native plant to Indonesia, that smoking is an individual right and that sports, the arts and the national economy would collapse without the tobacco industry.
Felix points out that those who defend kretek cigarettes as a source of national income and pride are ignoring the fact that HM Sampoerna, the country’s biggest kretek producer, is owned by Philip Morris International, a multinational corporation headquartered in New York City.
“The tobacco industry is always searching for new smokers,” Felix writes. “And Indonesia — where regulations regarding cigarettes are very loose — has an extraordinary share of those.”
He goes on to accuse the tobacco industry of advertising to Indonesia’s young people.
But it is the youth who are starting to wake up to the dangers of smoking.
American documentary filmmaker Christof Putzel received almost 200 “friend requests” on Facebook overnight when an Indonesian user posted his film “Sex, Lies & Cigarettes” on the video-sharing Web site YouTube.
Taken from Putzel’s “Vanguard” documentary series intended for US audiences, the film argues that tobacco companies are trying to hook as many Indonesians as possible to cigarettes before the country’s antismoking laws catch up with those in the rest of the world.
In the documentary, Putzel takes viewers behind the security gates of the World Tobacco Asia convention in Jakarta to reveal the cutthroat attitudes of big tobacco companies fighting to secure Indonesia’s young and impressionable market. The industry representatives are shown bragging about how easy it is to profit from cigarettes in Indonesia, where regulations on advertising and age limits are lax.
Indonesian YouTube viewers have rallied around the video’s revelations, and are urging friends and family to heed the message. The clip has already received more than 200,000 hits, and Putzel has been invited to speak at universities here.
The filmmaker also attended the launch of Mardiyah’s book at Atma Jaya University in South Jakarta last week.
“Cigarettes are the only consumer product in the world that, if used as intended, will kill half of its long-term users,” Putzel told students and reporters at the launch, which was also attended by representatives from the health department, antismoking activists and former cigarette advertisers.
But what the audience was most shocked to hear was that Putzel had never seen a cigarette advertisement on TV until he came to Indonesia. In the film, he describes Indonesia as the “new Marlboro Country,” and accuses big tobacco companies of simply recycling decades-old advertising strategies from the United States, where they are no longer welcomed (and banned on television), to a growing market in Indonesia.
“Tobacco companies are racing to get young people [in Indonesia] addicted before regulations arrive,” he said. “You are being manipulated by big, fat, rich tobacco execs.”
The message is resonating with Indonesians viewers online.
“This is something that should be brought to the attention of all smokers,” one viewer commented on the clip. “Do you want to die because of smoking? Do you want to be lied to like this? Do you want to waste your money on this stuff? [Indonesia] needs to wake up!”