Indonesia: Protobacco lobby intensifies

19 August 2016

Protobacco lobbying in Indonesia, dubbed the country of baby smokers because of its alarmingly high smoking rate among children, is endangering the lives of millions, according to a recent report.

The report, by the Southeast Tobacco Control Alliance, measured the tobacco industry’s interference in seven Southeast Asian countries for the past three years.

Not only does Indonesia have the highest level of tobacco-industry interference of the seven countries, it is also the only country where such interference is getting stronger each year.

The tobacco industry has been trying to interfere in Indonesia’s policies as it expands into emerging markets, where fewer regulations exist as smoking rates have declined and public attitudes have shifted in more developed countries.

“These past two years have shown that Indonesia is the worst [in terms of the tobacco control interference index],” National Commission on Tobacco Control (KomnasPT) member Widyastuti Soerojo said.

According to the 2016 study, which used data from 2015, the seven countries — ranked from the lowest level of interference to the highest — were Brunei Darussalam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In 2016, Indonesia had a tobacco control interference index of 85, the highest of the seven countries. The 2016 interference index was higher than the figures in 2015 and 2014, which were 82 and 78, respectively.

Other Southeast Asian countries, like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines and Malaysia had declining interference, with Thailand showing the biggest improvement, lowering its index to 34 in 2015 from 51 in 2014.

Thailand reduced the tobacco industry’s interference by taking concrete measures such as banning tobacco industry-related corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects.

Indonesia, on the other hand, continues to facilitate the tobacco industry’s growth by allowing it to participate and interfere in policy development.

In Indonesia, the tobacco industry is regarded like any other industry and is treated as a stakeholder by the government; its views are taken into consideration when developing tobacco control policy. “We know that the former industry minister [Saleh Husin] visited tobacco companies, like Djarum and Gudang Garam, to ask for their input on the ministry’s tobacco industry road map,” Widyastuti said.

The result of the visits was a highly controversial road map, which lays out a grand plan to double national cigarette production to 524.2 billion cigarettes per year by 2020.

The road map is music to the ears of big tobacco companies like PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna Tbk., the “crown jewel” of Philip Morris International’s investments. The company predicts that the market will expand by 1 percent to 3 percent over the medium term largely because of population growth. Last year, Philip Morris announced during President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s visit to the US that it would invest US$1.9 billion from 2016 to 2019.

The report said the huge investment was further proof that the tobacco industry’s grip on the government was getting stronger.

Another indication of the tobacco industry’s intervention is a controversial bill currently being deliberated in the House of Representatives.

Some provisions in the draft bill are considered too accommodating for the industry and are thought to have potentially been included by lawmakers in order to meet demands from industry players.

Legal activist and lawyer Julius Ibrani of the Foundation of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI) cited Article 35 of the draft bill, which does not require cigarette makers to add health warnings to their labels.

The article contradicts existing regulations stipulating that cigarette packs must carry pictorial warnings about the dangers of smoking.

“Therefore, all things considered to be halting the consumption of cigarettes are being omitted [from the bill],” Julius said.

Government officials also often participate in tobacco companies’ CSR activities, another indication of the industry’s intervention, according to the report.

For instance, Youth and Sports Minister Imam Nahrawi officially opened a badminton competition held by Djarum in Manado last year.

Last, the government has adamantly refused to ratify the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), even though Indonesia is the only country in Asia yet to sign and ratify the convention.

Ratification of the treaty would ensure protection for citizens from the effects of tobacco consumption as its provisions govern the production, sale, distribution and taxation of tobacco, including a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising.

The treaty has been ratified by 180 countries, now protecting 90 percent of the world’s population, with Zimbabwe the latest country to join.

Indonesia’s reluctance to sign the FCTC is ironic as it is one of the countries that formulated the framework in 2002-2003.

The President has said he does not want to follow a trend and ratify the convention only because other countries have.

“Jokowi thinks the FCTC is not our creation, meaning that we only follow [other countries]. So he has to be reminded, because Jokowi never follows the development [of the FCTC] and only learns about it later,” said KomnasPT advisory board member Kartono Muhammad.