Indonesia's Uphill Battle Against Smoking

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EARLIER this month, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed off on long-delayed regulations designed to discourage cigarette smoking. The new rules are sorely needed.

 Training a brass band at a Salvation Army boys’ home in Medan, Indonesia, in my spare time for the past 25 years, I have seen first-hand the effectiveness of the aggressive marketing tactics employed by tobacco companies on Indonesia’s youth.

At the instruction of its London headquarters, smoking by staff and visitors at all Salvation Army facilities is banned. This has meant that, unlike the situation in many Indonesian families, these young brass band members are not exposed to adult role models who smoke.

They are also protected from the dangers of child smoking. Anti-smoking campaigners say that more than 30 per cent of Indonesian children smoke a cigarette before the age of 10.

Once free from institutional restrictions at 18, however, some of the former boys’ home residents I know have been enticed by cheap cigarette prices and the tobacco industry’s sophisticated marketing techniques. One even has a Facebook page that includes pictures of himself smoking while adopting various macho poses.

The Global Adult Tobacco Survey carried out by the World Health Organisation in 2011 showed that the proportion of regular smokers among Indonesian males jumped from 53.9 per cent in 1995 to 67 per cent in 2011. Reports also suggest an increase in the number of female smokers.

Economists note that tobacco products are second only to food in household spending, particularly among lower income groups.

Under the new regulations, cigarette firms will be prohibited for the first time from portraying children, teenagers or pregnant women in their promotional material. In addition, cigarette packets will have to bear photographic warnings on the front and back. The side panels must also carry written health warnings.

Another restriction states that cigarette advertisements may never be published on the front or back cover of a print publication or near advertisements for food and drink products.

In addition, producers will also no longer be able to use the words “light/mild”, “ultra light/mild”, “low tar”, “slim”, “special”, “full flavour”, “premium”, or any variant of those terms, on any of their products.

Will this be enough to discourage my young band members in Medan from taking up smoking? I doubt it.

There is, for example, no ban on selling cigarettes by the stick, a practice that makes it easy for both the young and the poor to take up smoking. Tobacco companies are also able to continue sponsoring events that appeal to youth, such as sports events and music concerts.

Even Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi has acknowledged that the new regulations fall short. She has expressed particular disappointment with the fact that cigarette companies will still have access to the ubiquitous billboards that dot Indonesian cities. Advertising will also continue on radio and TV, although advertisers will be obliged to devote 10 per cent of their duration to health warnings.

Health activists have long advocated a reduction in smoking as an effective means of reducing the nation’s health bill. Anti-smoking campaigners point out that government revenue from the tobacco industry last year amounted to 55 trillion rupiah (US$13.7 billion), while the amount spent on treating smoking-related illnesses topped 231 trillion rupiah.

The most widely smoked cigarettes in Indonesia are kreteks. These are made from cloves as well as tobacco, and contain much more tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes. They are therefore regarded as significantly more dangerous to human health.

Many of the omissions in the new regulations are a reflection of the power of local cigarette companies, particularly kretek manufacturers such as Gudang Garam, Sampoerna and Bentoel. The fact that they will not take effect until mid-2014 also reflects the influence of the cigarette lobby.

Even so, the industry does seem to be on the defensive. The new rules are just one indication. Last month, Jakarta deputy governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama warned civil servants that they would lose their monthly performance allowances if they were caught smoking on the job outside permitted smoking areas.

Cigarette manufacturers have also effectively conceded many of the health-related arguments put forward by their critics. They refer instead to the impact on the livelihoods of the nation’s thousands of smallholder tobacco and clove growers should cigarette consumption decline. Indeed, if anti-smoking campaigners are to win the political battle, they will have to find ways of encouraging such farmers to diversify their crops.

Meanwhile, light taxes mean that cigarettes in Indonesia remain among the cheapest in the world.

Efforts to reduce the proportion of Indonesians who smoke continues to be an uphill battle. Those young band members in Medan are likely to remain at risk for many years to come.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Key Political Risks

Asia is the fastest growing region in the world, and is likely to remain so in 2013. However, a number of risks cloud the picture.

The good news is that domestic demand in the region remains strong and should continue to cushion the impact of weaker external demand on overall economic growth. The completion of national elections in Japan and South Korea in December 2012 should also help reduce political uncertainties. 

But Asian governments will need to guard against the adverse impact of prolonged easy financial conditions on inflation.

Rising inequality also continues to threaten social stability. Ethnic and religious rivalries remain just below the surface in many countries. When combined with government corruption and (in some countries) high youth unemployment, this could become a deadly mix. This seems particularly true of China.

Territorial disputes also require close monitoring. Much diplomatic activity in the new year is likely to be centered on finding ways to reduce tensions over resource-rich islands in the South China Sea, where Beijing's claims overlap with those of Japan, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states. South Korea and Japan also have rival territorial claims.

North Korea remains the wild card. Inclined to believe its own propaganda, Pyongyang's new leadership could miscalculate, making belligerent moves that plunge the region into a military conflict that nobody wants.

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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