Aug 30, 2017
The nation has taken baby steps in its attempts to curb the threat of smoking on its population, most notably an estimated 200,000 tobacco-related deaths a year. These include President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo tiptoeing around the tobacco bill, initially rejecting the issuance of a presidential letter in March that would signal approval of its deliberation, and then changing his mind a week later. Another tiny step forward has been the steady, incremental increases in the tobacco excise. While the industry might complain, a pack of cigarettes here remains among the world’s cheapest at under US$2.
A more significant step was last December’s Supreme Court ruling that killed the Industry Ministry’s road map that aimed to increase tobacco production by 5 to 7.4 percent per year from 2015 to 2020. There was much hope that the ruling had sent a clear message that such plans contradicted government aims to reduce the number of smokers and tobacco-related health hazards.
But the landmark ruling went up in smoke as lawmakers again pushed the tobacco bill, which primarily reflects industry interests. Among others, it seeks to relax the ban on cigarette advertising.
It is no wonder that, for the global tobacco industry, Indonesia is “Disneyland” — as one report dubbed the country. Every attempt is thwarted, what with the President, a former businessman, displaying a wishy-washy attitude on the issue, despite clear threats to public health, including that of the younger generation.
Experts have warned that the “demographic dividends” of the bulk of the population being of productive age in the next decade will mean little if they are not healthy: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two in three Indonesian males smoke, starting in their teens.
The latest reports reveal that Japan Tobacco Inc., the world’s fourth largest cigarette manufacturer, is following in the footsteps of tobacco giants Phillip Morris International Inc., British American Tobacco and South Korea’s KT&G Corp. in buying local tobacco firms. More foreign firms are likely to be eyeing the nation’s vast potential of the smoking population, given the many loopholes in the weak regulations.
To highlight the power of the industry, Indonesia tops the list of nine countries in the region ranked on the “tobacco-interference index” issued by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance of health activists. One reason for this dubious distinction is because the Health Ministry stands virtually alone in defending the nation’s wellbeing.
One wonders whether severely dampening the smoking habit among the youth population could result in many more medal-winning athletes. The region’s largest economy is trailing in fifth place in the ongoing Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur. Ironically, tobacco companies used to splash out on commercials featuring gold medalists, proof of the industry’s years of contributing to grooming national athletes — that is, before the advertising ban.
Indonesia, the largest predominantly Muslim nation, has seen rising conservatism, but the red carpet we lay down for tobacco investors and its lobby groups prove we are the most liberal in the world, even as we cover the health costs of smokers.