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Indonesia’s Dying Industry Keeps Lighting Up

21 Oct 2021
By Duncan Graham
Man Smoking Cigarette, Mt. Lawu Indonesia. Source: Adam Cohn

Where there’s smoke, there’s sickness. There’s also clouds of money.

A tobacco price affray is underway in Indonesia triggered by a tax increase of 12.5 percent, with companies developing new sales pitches and crushing quality to soften the blow. Some weird names (Scorpion, Bolt) are priced at Rp 8,000 (AU$0.73) for a dozen, though the sticks are thin and contents loosely packed. The top internationals retail for around $2 for twenty ciggies. Can’t afford but still keen on cancer? Cigarettes are sold individually, too.

In Australia, prices are high, controls rigid, and obstacles widespread. Trade journal Tobacco Reporter has a 25-stick packet of Marlboro Gold at $48.50, while the average 20-box sells for around $35. Packs are plain, and products are out of sight at checkouts. Promotions are illegal. Buyers can’t browse open shelves.

The low prices paid by Indonesians keep them hooked to nicotine and manufacturers to profit. The two richest men in Indonesia are the Hartono brothers, Robert and Michael, owners of the Djarum brand of kretek (clove) cigarettes plus other businesses. According to Forbes magazine, their net worth is $52 billion. A wee way down the list is Susilo Wonowidjojo ($7 billion) with Gudang Garam, followed by Putera Sampoerna ($2.4 billion).  He sells under the family name, which translates as “perfect.” Then there’s the transnationals, Philip Morris and British American.

The number of Indonesians killed and crippled by their products – and those of other factories – is unknown. Estimates start at 250,000 deaths a year. WHO research indicates smokers have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 as the virus targets the lungs.

US-trained Dr Soewarta Kosen works on tobacco control policy at the Indonesian Health Ministry. He’s calculated macroeconomic losses from smoking in 2015 were four times more than that year’s tax. This year excise is expected to yield Rp 173.78 trillion ($16.5 billion), a sum just below the $17 billion reaped by Australia’s Inland Revenue from the diehard gaspers – around 15 per ent of all citizens aged over 18. Kosen notes: “Ironically, the household spending of the poor on cigarettes ranks third highest after fast food and rice, above spending on health and education.”

Indonesian tobacco use is proportionally the third highest in the world behind China and India. Almost two-thirds of adult men smoke, though less than five percent of women do. This is not because they’re more health-conscious (though probably true), but because of shame: Indonesian culture labels a woman with a cigarette a prostitute.

There are some warnings. Packs and adverts must carry the words “Peringatan merokok membunuhmu” (smoking kills you), which seems to bother few as the message is tucked away and frequently “forgotten.”  A photo of a tracheostomy isn’t effective because the unnamed man’s story isn’t told.

Coughers say they need to reduce “stress,” though keeping in with the boys is another factor. On many worksites, a pack gets used by all, a communal bonding of blokes through sharing.

Indonesia ranks fifth for cigarette production in the world and is one of only eight nations that’s neither a signatory nor a party to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. That puts Indonesia way offside with the 180 states that forbid or limit ads promoting smoking.

Visitors to Bali may not have seen billboards pushing smokes as they are blocked in some progressive towns. Giant signs continue to pollute the streetscapes in Javanese cities like Malang, which have tobacco farms and factories in their region lobbying to keep incomes healthy.

The industry asserts six million people are directly and indirectly employed in growing, harvesting, processing, and packaging, with most work done by women.  That’s a powerful figure to frighten politicians from introducing controls that might threaten jobs. However, the World Bank estimate of the workforce is nine times smaller.

Sales are supposed to be restricted to those over 18. Big supermarkets comply, but small traders don’t and fear naught, even selling single sticks. Reports that 30 percent of boys took their first drag before their voices broke are no surprise.

Just when lads are most impressionable, they’re hit by images of cool guys, tops at sport and wallets full.  Sometimes svelte girls are added to ooh and aah. The pictures almost always show one or three men, presumably to deflect ideas that a couple of blokes together might be gay. The models’ gums are never yellow, their fingers unstained. They could dart down to another agency and star in a healthy living commercial with nary a cough or spit on the way. Slogans in English include “Bold,” “Dare,” and “Don’t Quit,” a real up-yours to health campaigners as “Quit” is widely used in the West to help addicts.

The super slick TV commercials featuring daring studs challenging the wild can only be screened after 9:30 PM, when impressionable kiddies are supposed to be abed. That regulation has been trashed by the use of open-air screens running day and night.

Slim hotshots in corporate offices and adventure heroes in safari jackets are fantasy figures. It’s the ordinary folk who are the big users and losers, even labourers earning less than ten dollars a day want to swagger. A “waterproof cigarette” has been developed for fishermen and sailors.

Attempts to forbid “mild” because it suggests less harm were stubbed out by printing “MLD” with the upright on the second letter in bold print to look like “I.” A government “Development Plan” to ban promos, enlarge the cautions, and curb sales to minors has been puffing its way slowly through the legislatures. The WHO wants taxes ramped to 70 percent of the retail price.

Some wonder why Muslims are allowed to use the drug. Intoxicants and substances that harm the body are haram (prohibited), but the tobacco industry seems even more powerful than religious jurists. Indonesia’s Majelis Ulama Indonesia, the law-making body of Islamic scholars, has vetoed smoking in public or near pregnant women. If the savants know the habit kills and damages health, then logically it should be outlawed for all.

Despite the widely-known dangers, “Big Baccy” isn’t heading to the graveyard.  Some are forecasting “huge growth” worldwide in the next five years. In Indonesia health warnings, ad alerts, higher taxes, religious rules, and other deterrents just don’t work.  They’re all too MLD.

Duncan Graham is a non-smoking Australian author and journalist locked down in Java. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.