Indonesia, President Obama and tobacco, 03/19/10

The controversy over smoking in Indonesia is heating up coincidentally with the visit of US President Barack Obama. He couldn’t possibly have learnt that in school in Jakarta!

According to his recent medical check up both his doctor and  wife are concerned with his smoking. A Singapore paper has criticized him, while two articles in The Jakarta Post took opposing views on a ban on smoking. Perhaps Indonesia has something to offer the US President and the wider world in resolving these issues.  


There is currently important work going on in Indonesia, which indicates a difference between good and bad smoking. A history of tobacco also points to this distinction and it’s important to know and quickly clarify in Indonesia just what this is and then point it out to the rest of the world.

The anti -smoking lobby all around the world is quite right, smoking the normal commercial cigarettes available in the market today is playing havoc with health, medical and government expenses. Something has to be done about it, just ask President Obama while he’s in Indonesia.

The main reason for supporting the pro smoking lobby really has little to do with employment or revenue, that’s a bonus. The real argument is here in Indonesia some quite remarkable Indonesian scientists and doctors have discovered that cigarette smoking can, with specially treated cigarettes, significantly assist people’s health and has the potential to cut health costs around the globe.

This work has been going on quietly and unaided for some years and the reason I write today is because I am one of many that have benefited from this remarkable Indonesian discovery.

Before we look more specifically at this work, let’s touch on the history of tobacco or the little we know of it. For the west it all started with Columbus bringing tobacco back to Europe.

It soon became known as a magical healing tool. Jean Nicot, a French ambassador in the 1500’s, after whom nicotine was named, became assured of the healing powers of tobacco, describing it as a panacea, sending tobacco to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France.

The Queen was cured & decreed that tobacco was henceforth to be called Herba Regina, the “queen’s herb.”

Medical science was still in its infancy. Of course the Indians In the Americas knew its real impact on health for thousands of years before Columbus.

It was part of the wisdom lost in their oral traditions that existed before the written word. Unfortunately most of that knowledge disappeared with the death of so many indigenous peoples and their languages as a result of European Colonization.

Tobacco and smoking cigarettes were regarded as healthy and a successful part of medicine in many countries without a clear scientific explanation long after Columbus. Only in the last 40 years the link between poor health and cigarettes has become a focus. Why did it change and what should we do about it?

The Indonesians working on this project suspect it’s a combination of factors. Environmental pollutants affecting the tobacco leaf, pesticides and the fertilizers, together with some of the handling techniques and the chemicals placed in cigarettes.

 One thing we must do is learn from the ancient wisdom and find out how to grow healthy tobacco. Indonesia has made a start and it’s a great place to do it.

Unfortunately my country (Australia) has almost banned any private initiatives in this area.
In some countries research is still going on with tobacco; last week Scientific American had an article stating that the Texas Vac Plant Extract Consortium had developed a tobacco based vaccine enabling the world to cheaply fight pandemic flu viruses.

Tobacco is certainly not the key factor in many of the health issues attributed to it; the jury should remain out on that.

There is growing evidence of the major impact of mercury in our environment and particularly dental interventions affecting our health that need study in the context of the smoking issue.

Studies show the poor in certain areas have fewer chronic illnesses than the middle and upper classes in spite of the fact they smoke more and it is possible that this is because they have no dental amalgams in their mouths.

These and other matters are still the subject of investigation. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here in Indonesia now.

 More exciting is the combination of ancient knowledge of tobaccos healing properties, new developments in science and nano technology providing the possibility of placing nano particles into cigarettes. The smoke then acts as a conduit to reach all parts of the body quickly to fight disease.
To conclude, let’s ban unhealthy cigarettes and promote healthy smoking. This will serve many purposes, the pro smokers can have their cake and eat it without fear, the anti smokers are likely to have a new cheap readily available healing tool.  

As for the visiting president he can have a puff without a guilty conscious, relieve the anxiety of his beautiful wife and possibly soon a different strategy to lower health costs.  Don’t let this go up in smoke, it’s not a pipe dream.

The writer is director of Victor Chang Foundation, a heart foundation established in respect of Victor Peter Chang, a Chinese Australian cardiac surgeon and a pioneer of modern heart transplantation.

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