EACH working day, as the sun rises, the streets and laneways of Kudus fill with tens of thousands of women. On bikes and buses, by foot and on the back of motorcycles, many resplendent in their company-issue hairnets, they head to work – some to vast, modern warehouses, others to old buildings no larger than a small house.This is ”Kota Kretek” – Kretek City – and the women work in hundreds of cigarette factories in this Central Java hub of tobacco manufacturing.
Some 75 per cent of Kudus’s population of 800,000 are employed by the cigarette industry and there are nearly a quarter of a million workers – almost all of them women – who hand roll kreteks, Indonesia’s distinctive clove cigarette.
The women work in pairs, and with astonishing dexterity. Each pair typically makes more than 5000 cigarettes each day, one grabbing fistfuls of tobacco and stuffing it into a wooden rolling machine while the other snips the ends and gathers enough for each packet.
”Yes, I like it. I make many friends and I earn some money,” says Tumini, who is 28 and has been working at PT Djarum, one of the country’s largest manufacturers, for 10 years.
”For the first two weeks it hurt my fingers, but it is just like playing a guitar. After a couple of weeks, you get used to it and it stops hurting.”
Hand-rolled kreteks cost about $1 per packet and are actually cheaper than the machine-made ”white” cigarettes. The price reflects a concessionary tax regime that highlights the Indonesian government’s controversial approach to regulating the industry, where the protection of the 6 million workers directly employed in the industry, and their extremely wealthy bosses, trumps health concerns.
Indonesia is one of the world’s last bastions of laissez faire regulation of tobacco use. Ads still run on TV and the soccer league is sponsored by a tobacco company, as are pop concerts, cultural and sporting events – where young women often hand out free packets to anyone with a ticket.
Rates of smoking are rising, up 26 per cent in the past 15 years as more women and youngsters take up the habit. One in four boys aged between 13 and 15 now smoke, as do 70 per cent of men. Only 5 per cent of women smoke, but that percentage has tripled in the past decade.
The health and economic effects are devastating. Every year, more than 400,000 Indonesians die from health-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organisation. Another survey found that Indonesian households with smokers spend more on cigarettes than fish, meat, eggs and milk combined, and four times more than they outlay on education.
Tax from cigarettes brings in $6.2 billion for the government, about 8.5 per cent of revenue, but, says Ruli Mustafa from the anti-smoking group Combat, the health-related costs each year are ”far bigger” – more than $21 billion by one estimate.
But in Kudus, where the streets are festooned with cigarette ads, many argue that kreteks – the choice of 88 per cent of smokers – are in fact healthy.
Local legend has it that Camhari, the Kudus native who invented the kretek, was cured of asthma after he added cloves to tobacco. ”It’s common knowledge that cloves are a good herbal remedy,” says Handojo Setyo, PR man for PT Djarum.
”Kreteks are different from other cigarettes and cigars because of the cloves. There is research that shows clove oil can cure HIV and AIDS.
”Have you ever found anyone who has HIV and AIDS and smokes kretek? We have been looking and we can’t find one.”
It’s bunkum, of course. Kreteks are worse than normal cigarettes. Tar and nicotine levels, which are unrestricted in Indonesia, are twice as high in kreteks as the maximum allowed in Australia.
Yet Indonesia is one of the last countries where airtime is given to pro-smoking advocates who still insist on the health benefits of cigarettes.
This week, one major news channels ran a program devoted to the ”Divine Cigarette”.Its inventor, Indonesian nanochemist Greta Zahar, claims it is not only free of toxins, but also has properties that can cure various maladies, from liver cancer to autism.
Using a split-screen technique, the host conducted a lengthy interview with two Indonesian scientists supportive of Ms Zahar’s work, as footage of a smiling President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono meeting with tobacco farmers was shown on a loop.
No countervailing views were sought.
Kudus does have an anti-smoking campaigner, of a type.
Bambang Kismanu is the head of the Health Department office in Kudus and has a budget of about $50,000 a year to encourage people to give up cigarettes.
Each school in the region now has no-smoking signs and teachers have mostly stopped lighting up in the playground, Dr Bambang says.
Efforts are concentrated on fourth and fifth graders, amid alarming evidence of pre-teens taking up smoking en masse.
”It’s very difficult. Nobody protests [about] our campaign, but no one listens either,” says Dr Bambang.
”We are trying to get buildings to become non-smoking areas, but we have only two so far.”
”That’s here [at the Health Department office] and at the Manpower Ministry.”
As we talk, I spy a dirty ashtray in his office.
”You smoke?” I ask.
”No, it is just for guests. I’ve given up,” Dr Bambang replies.
We say our goodbyes, but I return a few minutes later to use the bathroom.
The portly health chief is drawing deeply on a kretek, chatting away with a group of his staff, all of them smoking at their desks.