Indonesia: Small step for health

17 June 2019
Editorial Board

Treading softly and ever so cautiously is the hallmark of our policy on tobacco, the livelihood for millions of farmers and their families. The industry, among the country’s largest taxpayers, has been identified as a major contributor to heart disease and stroke, adding pressure to a bleeding national health insurance program.

Therefore, we laud every encouraging sign to curb smoking; the latest being the government’s measure to take down at least 114 accounts on social media platforms containing cigarette advertising.

The move by the Communications and Information Ministry followed a letter to Minister Rudiantara from Health Minister Nila Moeloek, citing the latest national health survey, which points to an increase in smokers among 10 to 18-year-olds, from 7.2 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2018. Though restrictions on such commercials have been in place since 2012, their enforcement has apparently been lacking, while the tobacco association reminds the government that cigarettes are legal products.

A study by the London School of Public relations last year shows that 10 percent of teenagers surveyed in cities of Java tended to smoke after seeing cigarette advertisements on the internet, mostly YouTube.

Data analysis firm Nielsen Indonesia says tobacco firms spent Rp 1.6 trillion (US$111.9 million) on television ads last year compared to Rp 5.4 trillion in 2017, leading to the belief that part of the spending has shifted online.

However, we will be playing a never-ending game of cat and mouse on the web without a comprehensive, consistent policy on tobacco. The obvious place to start would be for Indonesia to sign up to the global Framework Convention on Tobacco Control; President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has maintained the record of ASEAN’s giant being conspicuously absent among the signatories to the Convention.

Ratifying the Convention would help to avoid inconsistencies in Indonesia’s commitment to a healthy populace, like the thankfully halted road map for the tobacco industry, which sought to significantly increase production. Another inconsistency has been the government’s refusal to lift the tobacco excise this year, after annual increases in previous years, despite Jokowi’s initial pledge to double the excise from 2015 to 2019. This means continued affordable access to cigarettes — even under Rp 1,000 a piece — despite the government’s allocation of half of the regional excise revenue to cover costs incurred by the Health Care and Social Security Agency (BPJS Kesehatan), which is running at a deficit of Rp 16.5 trillion, as the Indonesian Consumers Foundation has noted.

President Jokowi stressed the urgency of promoting a healthy lifestyle, as indeed the BPJS would continue to face financial hurdles if it had to cover the entire spectrum of health issues, including those resulting from bad habits.

Such a promotion would need the government’s clear vision beyond the trillions of rupiah received annually from the tobacco industry, while the industry eyes arguably the world’s largest market potential for cigarettes. Our hope in our “demographic bonus” is only justified if we can improve the youths’ education and health and prevent more youngsters from joining the average Indonesian smoker, who starts lighting up before turning 18.

The Jakarta Post