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Coughing up a smokescreen

By: Duncan Graham

It isn’t accidental irony but a deliberate insult from Big Baccy – two fingers to the government, medicos and public health pros. Just above the small government warning on the ad banner’s bottom corner showing a tracheotomy is the latest buy-line: ‘I choose, I live.’

Indonesia’s tobacco lobby is so powerful it makes the combined forces of fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals and the arms industry in Australia look like the efforts of a Save Something collective run from an inner-city squat.

As transnationals (the top two are the US Philip Morris and British American), they treat Indonesia’s democratically elected government with undisguised contempt.

The few health rules are cleverly bypassed. MILD was banned so the word became MLD with the downstroke on the in bold. The term ‘Quit’, widely used in the West to help addicts, has become warped to ‘Don’t Quit’ under pictures of sweaty athletes, so fit they’re clearly not users.

Slogans in English, much like French phrases in cooking and fashion, are supposed to add modernity and authenticity. Common are ‘bold’ and ‘dare’.

Cigarettes can’t be shown, so one ad showed a stack of white cups with the top one frothing.

The super-slick TV commercials featuring daring studs challenging the wild can only be screened after 9.30 pm when impressionable kiddies are supposed to be abed. That regulation has been trashed.

The gallants’ exploits dashing up mountains and crashing down heavy waves are also shown on outdoor screens in central city locations, day and night. Students heading to school must wonder how many packs they have to buy before their drab lives transform into adventure.

A few cities – usually with no fag factories in their bailiwicks – have banned outdoor advertising, but overall Queen Nicotine rules the Republic of 270 million. The WHO says research indicates smokers have a higher risk of contracting Covid-19, which seems logical as the disease attacks the lungs.

Indonesia has close to 200,000 confirmed cases and 8,000 deaths, but medical experts and statisticians allege the real figure is probably four times greater as official data collection is error-prone.

Surveys show users claim they need the drug to reduce ‘stress’. That could include worrying about health activists making their habit more frightening and costly.

Indonesia is one of only eight countries that’s neither a signatory nor a party to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. That puts RI way offside with the 180 states that ban or limit ads promoting smoking.

Smokes are supposed to be sold only to those over 18. Big supermarkets usually comply, but small traders don’t. Then there are the illegal home-mades kept under kiosk counters. There are reports that 30 per cent of boys started the habit before they’d grown pubic hair.

The awful stats, all drawn from credible sources like the WHO, the Indonesian Health Ministry, National Commission on Tobacco Control and other authorities, underpin these claims:

  • The annual death toll from smoking is estimated at half a million.
  • Macro-economic losses from cigarette consumption are four times higher than the tobacco excise.
  • Most smokers (63 per cent of adults) are men. Women rarely indulge, and not just because they’re smarter and more health-conscious. The culture labels them prostitutes. Work it out – smoking men are heroes, women harlots.

These facts are ignored by the local industry (the fifth largest in the world) when it orders the government to butt out of business. Instead, it highlights points like:

  • More than 10 million are directly and indirectly employed in growing, harvesting, processing and packaging. Most factory work is done by women. In Surabaya, tourists are invited to admire their dexterity.
  • Taxes imposed on the industry aid the economy.
  • The companies are benevolent corporate citizens, helping with pop concerts, education scholarships and sporting grants.

Although the ads show slim hotshots in corporate offices, the reality is that it’s the ordinary folk who are the big users and losers. Even day labourers earning less than 10 bucks a day think they need to show their manliness. One brand has developed a ‘waterproof cigarette’ for use by fishermen and sailors.

Indonesia has universal medicare but it’s suffocating. Though major employers pay their workers’ premiums, others have to buy. Many can’t, so rely on herbal cures and relatives’ savings should sickness hit. Tax reformers favour a system similar to Australia’s where cover is included in the personal income tax, arguing that a boosted excise on smokes should go to health care.

A government ‘Development Plan’ to ban ads, enlarge the health warnings and curb sales to minors has been puffing its way slowly through the legislatures. The WHO wants taxes ramped up to 70 per cent of the retail price. They’re currently around 35 per cent.

The ‘Diplomat’ brand featured at the top of this story costs AUD $1.60 for 16 sticks, and it’s not the cheapest. In Australia a pack of 25 nudges AUD$40. Our 2.5 million smokers put about AUD$17 billion into the Treasury every year. In Indonesia, 60 million with yellow-stained fingers contribute a similar amount.

Those who aren’t Koranic scholars wonder why Muslims are allowed to use tobacco. Intoxicants and substances that harm the body are said to be haram (prohibited) but the tobacco industry seems even more powerful than religious jurists.

The Majelis Ulama Indonesia (the law-making body of Islamic scholars) has set new standards of hypocrisy by declaring smoking in public or near pregnant women haram. If the savants know tobacco damages health it should be banned for all, but the likelihood of widespread and open non-compliance would undermine the old men’s other edicts.

Hooked users shrug off the government health warning Peringatan merokok membunuhmu (smoking kills you) like motorcyclists ignore traffic lights. Anecdotes trump facts: all inhalers know a Grandpop who smokes two packs a day and still pedals a pedicab.

As the world leader in combating tobacco use, we are loathed internationally. Indonesia (in reality Philip Morris) plus four other states challenged Australia’s plain packaging laws at the World Trade Organisation and lost.

To be a smoker in Australia you have to be rich or stupid – or both. The ugly sight of addicts huddled in rain-swept car parks is enough to encourage abstinence. Shame is a powerful controller of behaviour in Indonesian society, but smoking has yet to make that grade.


Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.


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  1. In addition to death by lung cancer should be added strokes, other cancers and complications in illnesses, exacerbated by the poor medical system in Indonesia.


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