Special Report: Who’s trying to kill the tobacco bill?

Indonesia, where cigarette prices are the cheapest in the world, has signed a convention on tobacco control along with 175 other countries as a sign of commitment to limiting the impact of tobacco and cigarettes on the population, particularly on minors. However, a bill on tobacco control, which if passed will automatically ratify the convention, is now the subject of intense bickering among legislators. The Jakarta Post’s Nani Afrida seeks an insight into the problem.

Here are the stories:

A full-blown war to block a bill on the control of tobacco products is currently being waged in parliament, with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle’s (PDI-P) Aria Bima forced to try and wrap it up before legislators end their term on Sept. 30.

Despite being re-elected for another term, Aria is worried, because the clout once wielded by his party will be far less substantial in the next House of Representatives.

Last April’s legislative elections will see the PDI-P occupy 95 of 560 seats at the House, down from 127 seats after the 2004 polls.

“It seems my duty *to reject the bill* will be more difficult *in the next term*, with only a small number of legislators from our party in the House,” he says.

So it is now on Aria and fellow legislators from the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) to kill the bill within the next few weeks, with the Democratic Party, a fervent supporter of the bill, set to dominate the House.

Aria and other opposing legislators claim they seek to block the bill for the sake of tobacco farmers, who will likely suffer the most if the bill is endorsed.

“Legislators should think of the farmers, and not just of the negative impact of tobacco,” Aria says, adding the country will also suffer potential losses of around Rp 51 trillion (US$ 5.1 billion) in cigarette excise if the bill is passed.

In 2008, 220 legislators agreed to deliberate the bill, in response to the government’s signing of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) along with 175 other countries in 2003.

The FCTC was formed in May 2003 when member countries of the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated a historic tobacco control treaty. Those countries believe the convention has the potential to reduce tobacco’s adverse impacts to health.

However, Indonesia – ranked in the top three of cigarette consumers in the world and with a booming tobacco industry – has yet to ratify the treaty by passing the bill.

The bill, which basically emphasizes existing regulations on tobacco controls issued by local and central governments, includes pledges to ban children from selling or purchasing cigarettes, setting up no-smoking areas, and limiting cigarette advertising, promotions and endorsements.

It also calls for strict disciplinary measures of five years in prison and/or Rp 1 billion in fines for illegal tobacco producers and other violators.

The most contentious issue in the bill revolves around the possibility of the government imposing a quota on cigarette production and capping the number of cigarette companies in operation.

Opposing legislators also point out the economic implications of unemployment and reduction in national income, which they argue will be more of a financial burden than tobacco-related illnesses.

With huge amounts of money and workers engaged in the tobacco industry, stakeholders are also piping up in opposition to the bill. The country’s cigarette companies had a combined revenue last year of more than Rp 80 trillion, and employed more than 600,000 workers directly and 10 million indirectly.

Nasir Djamil, from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), says legislators were at first eager to deliberate the bill, but have eventually withdrawn their support due to various reasons, including possible pressure from businesses.

“Perhaps they’re thinking about the tobacco farmers, or maybe it’s a conspiracy between them and the tobacco industry,” says Nasir, who is involved in the deliberation.

He adds tobacco farmers have visited the House several times to protest the bill.

However, most legislators who support the bill say such protests are engineered by cigarette companies to draw public sympathy.

Hakim Sorimuda Pohan, from the Democratic Party, claims the farmers are being manipulated by cigarette companies.

“Those farmers are being forced by the cigarette industry, under threat of a loss in orders should they not comply,” he says.

He adds the bill will affect the companies more than the farmers, saying the latter can easily turn to growing other crops.

Hakim accuses other legislators of selling out to the cigarette industry, which financed their campaigns in the recent elections.

“As a result, these legislators can’t think objectively,” he says, adding he has evidence of the collusion, including cigarette packs branded with party logos that were handed out during campaigning.

Tobacco farmers and workers in Central Java admit the Indonesia Tobacco Farmers Association (APTI) has received support from cigarette companies to lobby the House.

“It’s perfectly normal *for the companies to pay the APTI to lobby*,” says one farmer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We have to fight this bill. The companies are rich and have large farms. We have to go along because we work for them on their land.”

APTI Central Java secretary Wisnu Broto dismisses the allegations, saying farmers and manufacturers stand worlds apart.

“Actually, we’re fighting for better prices from cigarette companies, so why would they donate anything to us?” he says.

Indonesian Cigarette Producers Association (Gappri) chairman Ismanu Soemiran echoes Wisnu’s rationale.

“Do the legislators have any evidence that we’re financing the farmers to stage protests in opposition to the bill, or to lobby legislators?” he says.

He claims no anti-tobacco activists or legislators have invited Gappri to discussions on the bill.

Legislators supporting the bill say lobbying by tobacco farmers and cigarette producers will intensify during the House’s downtime, to kill the bill.

Hakim and Nasir say they will try to buy time until Sept. 30 to push the bill’s deliberation into the tenure of the next House, when there are expected to be more legislators in favor of the bill.

“The House’s makeup will change with new people and spirit,” Hakim says.

“This will be the best opportunity to pass the bill.” (naf)

Key issues in the bill
1. Prohibiting children from selling or purchasing cigarettes.
2. Setting up no-smoking areas.
3. Limiting cigarette advertising, promotions and endorsements.
4. Strict disciplinary measures of up to five years in prison and/or Rp 1 billion in fines for violators.
5. Quota on cigarette production.
6. Capping the number of cigarette companies.