23 August 2016
Burdened by a persistent deficit in the national health insurance, the government, earlier reluctant to try to stop the country’s addiction to smoking, has announced a plan to raise cigarette duties.
The plan, which has yet to have a specific schedule, has given new hope to anti-tobacco groups, which have despaired over the government’s protection of the industry.
A public health expert from the University of Indonesia (UI), Hasbullah Thabrany, pointed out that Indonesia is a country with considerable tobacco consumption.
“Currently, at least 20 percent of students of high schools have become daily smokers and there are 10,860 children who start smoking every day,” he said, referring to the support for the plan that has been growing on social media since the government announced it over the weekend.
Indonesia has been fighting a losing battle against tobacco with the government siding with the industry.
Low prices and loose regulations have led Indonesia to be one of the top five countries in the world in regards to the number of smokers. About two-thirds, 67.4 percent to be precise, of men more than 15 years old smoke, making Indonesia the country with the world’s highest smoking prevalence among males.
Members of the health community, including the Health Ministry, have campaigned against tobacco by constantly reminding everyone of the danger of cigarettes in the hope of reducing the alarming prevalence of smoking in the country, in particular among juveniles.
However, these efforts have increasingly looked like “beating one’s head against the wall” as the government wants to double the production of cigarettes to 524.2 billion per year by 2020, the Industry Ministry’s 2015 tobacco industry roadmap states.
The university conducted a survey of 1,000 smokers and found that the price that would make them quit smoking is Rp 50,000 per pack, more or less double the current average price.
The survey was afterwards cheered by anti-tobacco supporters in social media, while jeered by smokers and their supporters. Government officials declined to respond to the price suggestion.
Earlier, the government expressed the intention to earmark the increase in cigarette excise taxes for the National Health Insurance (JKN), which has persistently suffered a deficit over the past few years.
It has yet to determine, however, the mechanism for directly allocating the cigarette duties to the insurance fund.
National Commission on Tobacco Control head Priyo Sidipratomo said he is worried that the discourse over new cigarette prices would shift the public’s attention away from the ongoing deliberation over a tobacco bill in the House of Representative.
“I am worried it’s just people who aim to protect the tobacco business testing the waters. The tobacco bill will counteract the ongoing campaign of preventing more smokers, especially the underaged,” he said.
Arguing that it is intended to protect tobacco growers, the bill has been criticized for neglecting the hazardous aspects of smoking.
Article 35 of the bill stipulates cigarette producers must include on their labels lists of tar and nicotine contents, explanations of health risks and a warning about selling or giving cigarettes to children and pregnant women, but it does not require pictorial health warnings, as stipulated in several prevailing regulations, including the 2009 Health Law and a 2012 governmental regulation on the control of tobacco products as an addictive substance.
Article 199 of the 2009 Health Law also stipulates that cigarette makers disobeying this obligation would face a maximum sentence of five years behind bars and a fine of Rp 500 million.
“The best way to curb tobacco consumption is by ratifying the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control because it provides clear guidelines to regulate tobacco, including its advertisement,” said Priyo.
Indonesia is the only country in Asia that has yet to ratify the convention. Earlier, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that the decision to ratify it or not would not solely be based on the number of countries that already agreed to it. Instead, the country should consider its impact on the tobacco industry.