Indonesia’s child smokers ‘threaten nation’s future’

22 August 2017:

In Indonesia, many small children can be seen smoking, mostly supported by their elderly family members, as a tradition, as locals think smoking symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood

A group of children sit laughing in front of a house in Butut Hamlet in Central Indonesia as cigarette smoke wafts through the sticky, humid air.

Each of them casually puts a cigarette in their mouth, takes a drag and exhales.

Thirteen-year-old Muslihin told Anadolu Agency he often purchases cigarettes from stalls around his house, but sometimes his parents buy them for him.

“I don’t smoke every day; just sometimes when I want to,” said Muslihin, who is no longer in school because his parents can’t afford it.

Another child smoker, 11-year-old Lutfianto, said he has been smoking since he was six after watching his father and his friends.

“I’m very happy to smoke while joking with my friends,” said Lutfianto, who is attending elementary school.

Both are among the hundreds of child smokers living in villages in Kaliangkrik subdistrict, Central Java Province. The area lies at the foot of Sumbing Mountain, a region well-known for tobacco farming.

No one stops them from smoking, including the local authorities.

The head of Butuh Hamlet, Lilik Setiawan, said there is a custom in the village where males above 15 are allowed to smoke.

“Many children aged 7-15 also smoke, but under parental supervision,” he said.

Children in the area mostly started smoking when they turned 10, after they were circumcised.

Setiawan said locals believe circumcision marks the transition to adulthood, while smoking is a sign of maturity.

“After the circumcision party, [the children] get a lot of money from the villagers, which they use to buy cigarettes,” he said.

A villager, Rina Setyanengrum, said she has a cousin and a neighbor who have been smoking since childhood.

“It’s become a kind of culture in this area that boys smoke even before they start attending school,” she said.

She said the cool weather and abundance of tobacco in the area are the main factors that support this longstanding tradition.

“So even though they can’t buy cigarettes, they can still ‘nglinting,'” she said, referring to the term for making their own cigarettes by wrapping tobacco with paper.

Although they know it is easy to get hooked on cigarettes at a young age, local merchants keep selling them to children because they represent a lucrative market, while parents cannot do much because it is a tradition.

The chairwoman of non-profit child advocacy organization Lentera Anak Indonesia, Lisda Sundari, told Anadolu Agency the number of children smoking in Indonesia is getting out of control.

According to data from Indonesia’s Health Ministry, in 2010, 30 percent of Indonesian children were smoking before the age of 10, while the number of young smokers aged 15-19 had surged nearly threefold to 20 percent from 7 percent in 1995.

Based on the 2010 census, the number of children in Indonesia was around 67 million.

“The data is very worrying, so there needs to be a strong commitment to reduce the number of young smokers,” Sundari said.

Indonesia is one of the few countries that has not signed the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which includes price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco. As a result, cigarettes are still extremely cheap and cigarette advertising is not banned.

Sundari said children start smoking after being heavily influenced by those around them, including parents, teachers and siblings.

Although Indonesia has one of the largest populations of smokers in the world, regulation of cigarette sales is very weak.

Advertising has been cited as the main culprit behind rising cigarette consumption and has succeeded in portraying smoking as cool and popular.

It is also easy for children to obtain cigarettes at very cheap prices.

Sundari said the high number of child smokers could threaten Indonesia’s future.

The country “will feel the impact of (child) smoking in the next 10-15 years,” she said.

The chairman of the Indonesian Consumers Foundation, Tulus Abadi, told Anadolu Agency that weak tobacco regulations and the prevalence of smokers are making Indonesia an increasingly attractive destination for multinational cigarette producers to expand their operations.

At the same time, these companies are feeling pressured by the strict regulations in their home countries.

“The multinational cigarette industry knows Indonesia is the most lucrative market for cigarette marketing in the world. They will target national cigarette producers for acquisitions,” said Tulus.

In early August, Japan Tobacco Inc. announced it had purchased all shares of two subsidiaries of the nation’s largest clove cigarette maker, PT Gudang Garam, for $667 million.

Philip Morris International Inc. and British American Tobacco PLC already have controlling stakes in local cigarette makers PT Hanjaya Mandala Sampoerna Tbk and PT Bentoel Internasional Investama Tbk, respectively.

Tulus suspects the corporate strategy by some parties will be regarded as a positive thing for the economy and investment.

“In fact, it will cause potential economic and social disaster for Indonesia,” he said.