Big Tobacco is trying to create new “Marlboro countries” in developing nations like Indonesia

The new Marlboro country and a generation lost in smoke(s)?

Julia Suryakusuma, Jakarta Post, April 27, 2016


As a teenager, I was smart enough to have never been lured into cigarette smoking, but still tolerated people smoking around me.

However, when I got pregnant, cigarette smoke made me feel nauseous. I reckon it was my body’s defense to protect the baby growing inside of me.

Since then, I have been a fervent anti-smoker, ferociously so in fact, and am certainly not shy about asking anyone who’s smoking in my vicinity to snuff out their nasty disease-inducing cancer sticks.

So I was really happy when Laksmiati A. Hanafiah, aka Ibu Mia, one of the founders of the National Commission on Tobacco Control (Komnas PT) called me recently to ask if I was willing to participate in a campaign to save the
younger generation from the dangers of tobacco.

Would I ever! I get really distressed when I see groups of elementary school kids on the streets, still in their uniforms, all puffing away.

Do you remember the case of Aldi Rizal, the infamous Sumatran toddler who became a media sensation a few years ago because of his smoking addiction? He started smoking at age 18 months, and by the age of two, he was smoking 40 ciggies per day!

Aldi’s case is extreme — but is it? Not by far. It’s common knowledge that the majority — seven out of 10 — men in Indonesia smoke, but perhaps it’s not as well known that one out of 50 children start smoking at age four.

I’m not sure what possessed Aldi’s father to start off his infant son on his addictive habit, but the motive of cigarette companies is clear: the insatiable pursuit of profit, and the need to keep the industry alive.

Sales are dwindling in Western countries due to tighter regulations, better enforcement and greater health awareness.

So Big Tobacco is trying to create new “Marlboro countries” in developing nations like Indonesia with a zeal and fanaticism that has imperialist overtones.

The iconic image of the Marlboro Man — a rugged cowboy — has morphed into a chubby, cigarette-twirling toddler like Aldi, or scowling, skinny schoolboys like Ilham from West Java, whose faces are perpetually shrouded in clouds of cigarette smoke.

Indonesia is the perfect new Marlboro country. It has the third-highest number of smokers (close to 70 million people).

A third of its population is young, and it has the highest rate of teenage smoking in Asia.

Deny it as they may, the market of young smokers is central to the tobacco industry and advertising (valued at Rp 3,650 billion in 2014) is geared to nurturing smoking behavior in children and teenagers.

Smoking is identified with glamor, independence, sexiness and machismo — traits that teens aspire to.

With cigarette stalls close to schools selling cigarettes by the piece, and no minimum age for buying cigarettes, the trap is set for a life of addiction to nicotine, which since the 1950s has been medically established as a cause of lung cancer and other dreadful and devastating diseases.

Then of course there are the environmental, economic and nutritional consequences: deforestation, poverty, wider income disparities and malnutrition.

This is especially true for poorer households who spend more on cigarettes than on good food for their kids. Go figure.

The meteoric rise in tobacco consumption among the youth of Indonesia has alarmed many. One of them is Emil Salim, a retired economist who has served in many prominent government positions.

Now 85 and fighting fit, currently on the advisory board of Komnas PT, he pointed out that between 2020-2045 Indonesia will experience a demographic bonus: young people of today will be at an optimal productive age.

But the quality of this demographic bonus could be damaged by cigarette consumption, which has reached epidemic proportions.

He points out another reason for concern, that cigarette smoking could lead to heavier drugs. It’s famously known that drug use and trafficking is punishable by death in Indonesia.

So how come tobacco, which contains nicotine, identified as “limbah B3” (bahan berbahaya dan beracun), i.e. dangerous and toxic waste, is not treated like other B3 waste, and the cigarette dealers not punished by death? Tobacco a gateway drug? It’s a death-drug, plain and simple!

After all, one of the definitions of B3 waste are those that “poison humans […] cause disease and death”. Tobacco certainly fits the bill. In Indonesia, cases of smoking-related diseases are estimated to number 960,000, and deaths 240,000 per annum — many more than the estimated 15,000 deaths resulting from a combination of total drug use.

Even if you include deaths from HIV/AIDS, motorbike accidents and many other diseases, they are still many fewer than nicotine-related deaths.

The Indonesian government imposes the death penalty on drug dealers, but do they realize they are also imposing the death penalty on Indonesia’s younger generation by refusing to ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) — signed by 180 nations — and adopting it as national law? What about their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2016-30, and indeed the Constitution that obliges them to protect all of the Indonesian people? Schizophrenic, or simply hypocritical?

Sure, the government issued government regulation PP 109/2012 which obliges tobacco companies to print warnings on the cigarette packs.

They’re also removing cigarette ballyhoo from the streets. But tobacco companies are still allowed to sponsor a multitude of events.

We also need to be wise to the increasingly sneaky ways the cigarette industry is pushing its deadly wares: e.g. including a provision in the a draft bill on tobacco to designate kretek (clove cigarettes) as an item of national heritage, and sponsoring social and music events and campaigning below the line, directly to villages.

Yesterday, on April 26, Komnas PT held a talk show in Jakarta entitled “Save the Younger Generation Movement”. Their demands were among others: to reject deliberation of the tobacco bill that removes state responsibility for tobacco control, and to retract the Industry Ministry regulation on the roadmap for the tobacco industry 2015-20, which pushes cigarette production from 398.6 billion cigarettes in 2015, to 524.2 billion in 2020. Really?

As Ibu Mia said, we are fighting giants. So let’s get on with it. Siapa takut? (Who is afraid?), if it means preventing our youth from being a generation lost in smoke(s)!